When Daisy Ding, 83, fell in her bathroom in New York City earlier this summer, she was not found until a neighbor checked and discovered her body four days later.
After Jack Li, 55, died of a heart attack while playing basketball in 2009, his corpse lay unclaimed at a Manhattan mortuary for over a year before a proper burial was arranged, thanks to donations raised by friends, and with support from the Celestial Love Foundation, a nonprofit burial society.
Last April, Ho Sing, 87, died in a fire. He did not speak English and refused to live with his relatives, so resided in New York’s Chinatown alone.
These are some of the recent incidents that have stirred up community concerns about Chinese elders living in isolation
The nearly 50,000 Chinese immigrants aged 65 and over in the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens face special challenges, according to a 2009 report by the New York Academy of Medicine.
The academy’s report,“Meeting the Needs of New York City’s Older Immigrants,” conducted for the city’s Age-Friendly New York Initiative in Chinatown and the Flushing area of Queens, noted that one challege is the city’s crowded streets, which smell bad and make elders feel unsafe. “The complicated and very confusing traffic patterns for both motorists and pedestrians in these communities create additional stress on residents, particularly those moving slowly,” the report said.
Such conditions intensify the sense of isolation that Chinese elders feel, even in one of the most populated places on earth, and make many older people want to stay in their apartments as much as possible.
“Chinese elders, who are regular visitors to the senior centers, may show signs of aging, and even be senile and doddering, but they are still considered to be the lucky ones,” said Po-ling Ng, the director of Open Door Project Senior Center. “The much gloomier picture lies among the elders who cannot visit senior centers due to physical incapability.”
Ng arranged for this reporter to visit homebound seniors served by Meals on Wheels. I accompanied Mr. Li, who has delivered food to elders in the senior center for 18 years. Mr. Li, who declined to give his full name, led us into a world of misery. Following is the story of one of these elders.
Hu Ching’s Grief
“To die or not to die? Why am I the one left behind . . . ? Why did my only son, my virtuous, decent son with such a kind heart had to face death? Why am I suffering alone in this world . . . ? How much do I want to die, to reunite with my son in heaven,” 90-year-old Hu Ching exclaimed.
The first time I visited Hu Ching, I was startled by her severely humped back and thin frame and dismayed at her shabby apartment. And I was shaken by her expressions of sadness, life regrets and desperate wish for death. Her repeated mumbling and feeble body simply sent chills to my heart.
Hu Ching lives in a tiny Chinatown unit and has been a member of the Open Door Project Senior Center since retiring years ago as a sewing machine operator in the garment industry.
“My humpback was the result of long working hours—I worked from eight in the morning till eleven at night. The job required me to bend my waist unceasingly. As I grew old and osteoporosis developed, my humpback situation has become more and more serious. I cannot walk without assistance or go down to town by myself. I can only count on Mr. Li to deliver my daily meals. Eh! Why do I have to live in such pain?”
Hu Ching apologized for a cold and for her pants, which slipped as she walked. “Please excuse me; the cold has taken away my appetite.” She said her weight had fallen from 90 to 80 pounds “and my pant size dropped quite a bit.”
She avoids Western medicine, which causes her discomforting side effects, she said, noting, “I had to switch back to my Chinese native herbs medicine.”
But her so-called Chinese medicines were items she had brought from her hometown back in the 1950s and 1970s. They hung in different plastic bags around her kitchen — and were clearly out of date.
“If they’re expired,” she said in answer to a question, “why do I feel better taking them than the Western medicine?”
What she called her “cooked medicine” made a pile resembling raw meat.
Time seems to have stopped in Hu Ching’s apartment. Her building dates back a century. Her living space is tiny—only 400 square feet—and is decorated with colorful plastic bags. An old-fashioned bathtub sits in the middle of her living room. Unable to climb into it anymore, she uses the tub as a laundry. To bathe today, she concedes, “I could only take a rub-down bath with the towel.”
Between the bedroom and the small hall, Hu Ching has built a threshold from pieces of a cardboard box to keep cockroaches and mice from invading her bedroom. She cut a notch in the middle of the barrier so she could step over it.
Her finances, a small pension from the garment workers union and insurance money from an accident her son suffered, are meager but sustain her. She distrusts government and has repeatedly refused help in applying for any government programs, including Social Security.
Treasures of Her Son
Under the bed are a dozen paper boxes filled with her son’s belongings. She keeps these treasures well organized in the memory of her son.
Hu Ching’s husband brought her from her small Chinese village to America after World War II, but left her and their son for South America.
The boy grew to become a successful computer engineer. He never married and continued living with his mother.
“My son regarded wealth like muck, and he taught English during his leisure time and volunteered at a homeless center,” Hu Ching said.
“My son was a very good man,” she recalled. Once, when she got mugged of several hundred dollars, he comforted her saying he was relieved she wasn’t hurt and hoped that it was the mugger’s last resort to take the money by force. “My son always lent money to his friends without restraint, and he never pursued the debts.”
Misfortune visited them twice. In the winter of 2003, her son helped care for his mother after she was severely injured by a chunk of ice falling from a building.
Then, in 2004, during the approach of the Mid-Autumn festival they planned to celebrate together, he was struck by a car and killed.
In Hu Ching’s living room, a faded photo of her son sits on a tabletop, as conspicuously as a saintly icon in a church. Under the photo rests a pile of age-yellowed black-and-white photos of life in better days. I asked his name, but her only answer was a silent expression of sorrow.
More than a Delivery Man
Even though her Meals-on-Wheels are subsidized by the government, they come from the familiar Open Door Project Senior Center, and she has come to rely on Mr. Li as one of her few remaining friends.
Over the years, Mr. Li, who immigrated from Hong Kong, has become more than a delivery man for meals. He often helps her with chores she can no longer manage alone, such as picking up rice and other necessities at the supermarket—or even bending over to pick up a fallen kitchen knife.
She also relies on Mr. Li to deliver and help with documents, such as filling out her Census form.
Every Sunday, Hu Ching attends church on nearby Madison Street. Religion has become her consolation. Suggesting that she expects to see her son again soon, she said, “I will try to enjoy the rest of my life, my son would not like to see me unhappy.”