Armed with goodwill and faith, waves of API immigrants have come to see what life in America is all about. But API seniors have unique challenges that limit their ability to assimilate. This is a growing concern for APIs as its one of the fastest growing immigrant communities in the country, with a large segment vulnerable seniors. According to the Office of Immigration Statistics Yearbook, Asians comprised about 35 percent of all immigrants in 2009. Compare that to the number in 2000 (31 percent); 1970-79 (33 percent); 1940-49 (4 percent); and 1910-19 (also 4 percent). These numbers show that there has been a marked increase from the turn of the century, when the largest number of immigrants was from Europe. This is staggering to think, especially looking at it another way: up to the late ‘40’s, 4 out of 100 (1 out of 25) immigrants were Asians. Last year, 35 out of 100 – 1 in 3 – immigrants were Asian!
But look around you and see what proportion of this is of elderly Asian immigrants. What’s their story?
Here’s the reality: there are two faces of the American Dream. When you are young and come to America, you will learn to live it and love it. When you are old, it can be a horrifying nightmare. Teresita* has another story.
In 2006, she and her husband Marcelo came over from the Philippines, where they had waited patiently on her sister’s petition for 24 years.
“We were so happy to know that we would finally be reunited with my sister after such a long time,” Teresita, now 59, says, “and we looked forward to a new life with better opportunities in the US.” What they found instead was that this country is no place for old men, or old women.
They first arrived in California but could not live with Teresita’s sister who was now in a nursing home undergoing dialysis treatments. So they decided to move in with their niece here in Seattle. They could not find jobs. By January of 2007 they were in Sitka, Alaska to work the first fishing season. They worked hard despite the harsh weather and it seemed they were on their way to a better future.
In February of this year, Marcelo had a heart attack and needed emergency open heart surgery. “I was devastated and so afraid. We did not have family in Alaska.” Social workers in Anchorage helped the couple find assistance to pay the medical bills.
They decided to come back to Seattle in March, but the week after they got back, Marcelo had another stroke and was brought to Swedish Hospital. They were approved for patient assistance then. Yet as if there was no end to their troubles, they recently got a letter from Swedish saying that they need to pay a portion of that bill as Marcelo’s medical benefits were taken away.
“I keep asking myself, when will this end? Why did this have to happen to us?” Teresita wails.
Marcelo tried applying for disability benefits but was told he was ineligible. The reason? They haven’t been here five years.
At this time, Teresita and Marcelo are being helped in their ongoing ordeal. “There are many difficulties recent elderly immigrants face,” says Richard Bueno of the International Drop-in Center (IDIC), a non-profit organization on Beacon Hill that helps immigrants. “Aside from culture shock and the challenge of learning new systems, elderly Asian immigrants just have no confidence in their ability to assimilate into American society. That’s why we – and other agencies – are here.” Among other services, he and two other staff are dedicated solely to assist seniors and veterans to combat mild depression through the PEARLS (Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives for Seniors) program.
*names changed to protect privacy