By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
To hug or not to hug, that is the question. Nancy Lee, the life enrichment director at Aegis Gardens, an Asian-themed retirement community in Newcastle, Wash., has to decide daily when and how to hug Asian residents.
Hugging and touching, especially in public, is frowned upon in Asian culture.
But physical contact is vital to emotional and physical health, particularly among seniors, say experts.
“In the beginning, I always look at body language,” said Lee, who is in charge of leading residents in exercise, cultural and social activities, and brain health games on a daily basis.
“As I develop my relationships with my residents, I make small contact day by day, such as reaching out for their hand when inviting them to an activity or putting my hand on their backs as I walk with them to the next activity,” she added.
Lee’s challenge is one of the complexities of running a retirement community for a niche population, an approach taken by entrepreneurs in a society where the cost of care for seniors is becoming prohibitively expensive.
Washington state last year ranked 19th nationwide for the most expensive nursing homes in America, according to a study by Seniorliving.org. The average monthly cost of a private room in Washington is $9,817.
By contrast, the most expensive cost for a private room in the nation was in Alaska, topping out at $29,291 per month.
While Aegis Gardens’ rates, predicated on a combination of room rental and care fees, are not in that astronomical range. The costs are “comparable to other communities” in the region, said Community Relations Manager Cecilia Yap.
Facing such steep costs, industry leaders have catered to niche populations with specific cultural and linguistic needs.
Aegis Living, the parent company of Aegis Gardens, opened an Asian-themed assisted living and memory care community near San Francisco in 2001 that quickly filled up. In Florida, an Indian entrepreneur opened a retirement community for the Indian population in 2008, according to National Public Radio.
Aegis Gardens in Newcastle opened a little over a year ago with staff that spoke multiple Asian languages and dialects, as well as English. Asian residents chose the assisted living and memory community for its ethnic focus. Many of its non-Asian residents were also attracted by its Asian-themed programs and food.
Residents take Chinese painting, calligraphy, and watercolor classes alongside students from local Chinese schools, who come as volunteers.
Residents also interact with children from a preschool operated on site by the Chinese Information Services Center, celebrating holidays, making crafts, and telling stories together.
“The residents feel comfortable about trying new things or making mistakes because the kids are there learning with them,” said Yap.
On a recent Saturday, a dozen residents joined several young Chinese American children around a table as a Chinese teacher spoke in Chinese and in English, demonstrating Chinese knotting, a technique using yarn to make paintings and figurines.
The residents were from Japan, Taiwan, China, Hawaii, and other parts of the United States.
“The residents come from all different backgrounds,” said Yap.
“They learn from each other,” she said.
Meanwhile, the staff is continually finding innovative ways to distinguish the community by enriching the lives of its residents.
One unique feature of the community is the Stan Head Cultural Center, a large, church-like structure adjoining the community that can seat up to 110 people.
Reached through a glass corridor, underneath which runs a stream with Koi fish, the glass-walled, light-filled structure is a site of multiple activities and events involving residents and the outside community, including Tai Chi, line dancing, yoga, ping pong, social dancing, and educational and cultural workshops.
An Indian nonprofit offers weekly classes on Sanskrit novels. The founder of the local chapter of Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the oldest Chinese civil rights group in the country, recently offered a workshop on how to start a nonprofit. Several local Chinese immigrants, attending the class, went on to found their own nonprofit.
Residents have lectured to packed crowds from the community on topics such as master gardening, tax and investment, and the differences between American and Chinese culture.
Anywhere between 300 to 600 members of the outside community, mostly retirees, attend activities in the cultural center each week, said Yap.
“They feel it’s their second home and are very comfortable here,” she said.
“They tell their friends about the cultural center and cultivate their friendships there, so they grow to feel Aegis Gardens is a place they trust and know is here to support the community and its needs.”
Still, creating a second home for anyone is not easy, particularly for those from another culture. For staff like Yap and Lee, the life enrichment director, creating a family atmosphere for residents requires tact and awareness.
In traditional Chinese culture, any kind of intimacy outside the immediate family can feel strained, say scholars. Asian elders traditionally expected their own children to care for them.
Lee gets around this by sharing her own family life with residents, encouraging them to open up to her.
Last year, after her wedding, she shared slides and stories with residents who eventually reciprocated by reminiscing with her about their own wedding stories.
And then there is the challenge of touching.
Because Asians generally refrain from making excessive physical contact, they “may be erroneously perceived as being extremely shy or withdrawn,” writes Chyi-Kong (Karen) Chang, a professor of nursing at Purdue University, in the book, “Transcultural Nursing.”
Lee is aware of such misperceptions. After she makes initial contact, through placing her hand on a resident’s back or hand, she experiments further.
“Usually after I’ve made these steps, I try to see if a hug will be reciprocated, the next time I see them, by extending my arms out,” she said.
“It is not the custom in Asian culture to hug, but I’d say that I hug almost all my residents,” she added. “For those who don’t like to hug, I still reach out for their hand or put my hand on their back because physical touch is so important. It gives off a sense of love and trust.”
(Disclosure: Mahlon Meyer serves as a consultant for Aegis Gardens, organizing community service activities for new Chinese immigrants.)
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.