Although she immigrated to the United States from Canton, China 13 years ago, Cai E. Yu still remembers the meaning of Sept. 9 on the lunar calendar.
The day is the traditional Double Nines Festival, which is also legally designated as the Seniors’ Festival in mainland China and Taiwan because the digit “9” is associated with longevity in the Chinese culture. Young people are supposed to show particular reverence to elders on this day.
But Yu, 70, is not expecting any kind gestures from her only daughter, who is now 50. Since Yu arrived in the United States on a green card sponsored by her daughter, the daughter has been living with Yu in her rent-controlled apartment in New York’s Chinatown.
However, their relationship started to go sour two years ago, when Yu tried to stop her daughter from idling around day after day with a semi live-in boyfriend, whom Yu thought was a bad influence.
“Why Don’t You Die?”
Since then, her daughter has said things like: “Why don’t you die now?” And, “Why don’t you just go to live in the hospital?” She has also withdrawn money from her mother’s bank account without authorization. She even threw the mother’s belongings out of the apartment in an attempt to force her out.
Yu is among the up to 5 million elders victimized by financial abuse in the United States, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), a program of the U.S. Administration on Aging. As many as 2 million seniors are mistreated by family members or others they depend on for protection. But in the Chinese and other Asian communities, family shame and secrecy make exact numbers difficult to measure.
“Sometimes, when they [her daughter and boyfriend] are at home, I don’t dare to go to bed. I am afraid they’d kill me when I fall asleep,” said Yu, who got a court restraining order against her daughter with the help of a community-based organization.
Reflecting the rapid national growth of Asian elders, the population of seniors 60 or older is 93,000 and will more than double in 10 years. This will be the fastest growth among all racial groups in New York, according to the City Council. And the population growth is likely to be accompanied by a rise in abuse cases such as Yu’s.
Familial piety is so highly valued in the Asian culture, contributing to the image of Asian Americans as a model minority, that many people, including Asian Americans, don’t realize that senior abuse exists in this community.
“The more a culture emphasizes a certain value, the harder for people from this cultural background to openly talk about behaviors that go against the value,” said Peter Cheng, executive director of Indochina Sino-American Community Center, which operates the only senior protection program in the Chinese community in New York.
Cheng sensed something wrong two years ago when one of the elderly members of his organization asked social workers there to help him fill out an application for government housing.
He remembered that the man had purchased a co-op apartment several years earlier, and the center had even hosted a celebratory party for him. “I was very curious why he needed government housing, so I asked.”
Cheng recalled, “He told me he spent his whole life savings to buy the co-op apartment in his son’s name, [that he] only wanted to get the son a good life. But now his son doesn’t want to live with him, and he was evicted.”
Cheng surveyed other members and found that this man’s situation was not unique. In response, Cheng launched the Chinese Americans Restoring Elders (CARE) Project, the first and only senior protection program in New York City’s Chinatown.
The CARE Project is run mainly with funds raised by the center and is operated by one social worker and several volunteers. It takes about 30 cases annually. “There are definitely more cases in the community, if only we had funding to hire more staff,” Cheng said.
Vague Picture of Abuse
Nobody knows how many more elder abuse cases there are in New York’s Chinatown. Even in the mainstream community, the picture of senior abuse is at best vague. Differing definitions and reporting processes among states make it all but impossible to compile national statistics. According to NCEA, the most recent studies, conducted in 2003 or earlier, show that merely one out of six such cases is reported to authorities.
In New York State, 25,000 elder abuse cases were reported to the Adult Protective Services of the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) in 2009. But at least five other government agencies also take senior abuse complaints. Also, one person could call several agencies to complain. Because some cases can be reported multiple times and many others go unreported, experts consider current figures to be unreliable.
State Senator Jeffrey Klein proposed a bill in 2008 calling for the state to establish a consolidated data system for elder abuse cases, but it didn’t pass.
In addition, authorities don’t really know how many cases involve Asian elders. New York State OCFS doesn’t track the racial backgrounds of the victims. Nationally, a 1998 report by NCEA found Asians were involved in fewer than one percent of domestic elder abuse cases, the least of all races. But a 2001 report by Adult Protective Services of San Francisco found Asians were involved in about 10 percent of the 2,121 cases reported there in March of that year.
“Issues that affect the general public are often paid more attention than those that affect people at certain ages or ethnicities,” said NCEA’s Sharon Merriman-Nai. “Senior abuse is the type of social issue flying under the radar.”
Part II of this series looks at Asian elder abuse victims and efforts to help them. This series, originally published by Sing Tao Daily (New York), was supported by a Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Grant from The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, operated by the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Names of abuse victims have been altered at the request of the interviewees.