By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Every now and then, Daphne Kwok’s parents will drop hints about what they want, should they become unable to take care of themselves. But it’s never direct, and it’s almost always casual.
“It is an ongoing conversation, and ongoing dialogue. I would say that sometimes, it’s a little more direct, but still, being very Asian … we are still sort of talking about it in indirect ways,” Kwok said.
Yet this sort of indirect talk isn’t unusual, when it comes to talking about aging and end of life care in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, Kwok said. It’s only because of her work with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) that Kwok and her siblings even broached these issues with their parents.
Kwok works as the Vice President of Multicultural Markets and Engagement for AARP. Appointed in 2013, she’s the highest-ranking Asian American at the organization.
While Kwok has a long history of working for the betterment of the AAPI community, her current position at AARP has brought a different dynamic to her life. She credits the organization with giving her the tools to sit down with her parents to talk about end-of-life arrangements, health, and other matters.
“We Asian Americans, we don’t like to talk about death, dying, money, health, love — these are all issues that AARP actually addresses,” Kwok said. “We actually have an AAPI-specific website — just to be able to get that information, and be educated.”
Conversations around aging and death are especially important in AAPI families in which older generations don’t speak English. About two-thirds of the community is comprised of immigrants, Kwok said, and the inability to surmount culture and language barriers can lead to social isolation.
“Here in the U.S., there are still not many places that are providing linguistically or culturally competent services,” Kwok said. “What people don’t realize is that for people who are socially isolated, it’s the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So, that health impact is tremendous.”
This sense of social isolation is compounded when traditional AAPI family structures come into play. Older folks in the AAPI community tend to live with their children, after they reach a certain age, and are often tasked with taking care of grandchildren, while their own children are at work. But this isn’t always what they want, Kwok said, and it isn’t always affordable, safe, or fair.
“What we are finding is that that is very isolating for parents … if they don’t drive or there is no transportation to go about, and go to community centers, or go to events, or go see friends,” Kwok said.
It’s also unfair for the children, she said, and contributes to guilt if one is unable to care for one’s parents, for any reason.
“We need to learn that there are different ways, different options, for being able to care for parents. … We need to accept that that’s okay,” Kwok said. “For us in the Asian community, that is a very foreign concept. ‘Oh, so you want to put your parents in a senior community living center? You don’t want to keep them at home? Oh, you must be a bad child.’”
Kwok said she is fortunate her parents are in good health and mobile, because so many other older folks she knows or hears about through her friends and acquaintances aren’t. This leaves many children of aged parents scrambling for answers and help, especially in the AAPI community.
While Kwok is “delightfully surprised” at the number of folks in the AAPI community who want the information AARP can provide, she also said that AARP created two different documentaries that show the real-world consequences of being unprepared for one’s parents’ illnesses.
One focuses on three Chinese American caregivers, among them MSNBC anchor Richard Lui, who flys back to San Francisco almost every week to care for his father, who has dementia. The other looks at caregivers in the Filipino American community, one of whom is retired Army Major General Antonio Taguba, “who shares his painful experience of not being prepared at all for when his parents and his in-laws became ill.”
“We are able to use these documentaries as catalysts for conversations in our communities,” Kwok said. “General Taguba, and Richard Lui, and others that we have out there … have been able to share their really specific examples, and tips on how to really be able to be caregivers.”
AARP also has a workbook that may help facilitate conversations between older parents and their children. Kwok herself has used it, but said it’s important not to push off the conversation, and rely on the workbook. This is part of the reason much of AARP’s outreach work focuses on talking with college-age children. The sooner AAPI families can begin to break down the taboos surrounding talking about health, wealth, and death, the better off they will be, in the future.
“If we can have the conversations earlier in life with our parents, knowing what their wishes are, how they want to live their lives, I think it would ease a lot of guilt. I think it would be beneficial for both the parents and the children,” Kwok said.
Carolyn can be reached at email@example.com.