By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
He retired from corporate life in 2015. But Jim Ko isn’t slowing down.
Ko is the AARP Washington State president. In the volunteer role, Ko directs the organization’s activities on behalf of nearly 940,000 Washington state members.
“I’d like to help people as they get older to have a much higher quality of life,” Ko said in a recent interview with the Northwest Asian Weekly.
Born in Taiwan, Ko moved to the United States with his parents when he was 8 years old. He spoke fondly of his first few months in this country.
“Our port of entry was Seattle because we had friends and family on Mercer Island,” Ko recalled.
“My first impression was how beautiful it was. I still remember vividly the great, crisp apples and I’m in my mid 60s now.”
Though he first landed in western Washington, Ko spent most of his life on the East Coast. His father was offered a job as a college professor in New York. As a student, Ko shared that he was not the stereotypical Asian.
“I’m terrible at math,” Ko said, laughing. “And I wasn’t that smart academically.” Instead, Ko said he has always been an avid sports person.
“I was the first Asian varsity football player in Pennsylvania,” revealed Ko. That was during the time his father got a job in the Keystone state and he attended high school in Pittsburgh.
“During the away games, we would travel to these working class towns and people there had never seen an Asian before, much less an Asian football player,” Ko said.
Back then, Ko said you played both defense and offense. He was a linebacker and lineman.
“I wasn’t the best player,” he said. “Second string.”
Ko eventually attended Cornell University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He went to work for Bristol-Myers Squibb, a company that paid for his master’s degree from Columbia University. He also worked for a company now known as Kraft Foods, and Campbell Soup. He traveled extensively for 30 years, working in the international arena for these corporations.
“In most of the jobs I had, I was in a leadership role,” Ko said. “I was not an engineer, a scientist, or in research and development. I was a general manager since I was very young… an ethnic minority leading mostly white people organizations — that was a challenge which I found really exhilarating.”
Then in 2011, Ko made his way back to Seattle when “Starbucks made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
He moved his family here, including his elderly and then-widowed father. His health was declining and Ko’s frequent travel made it difficult to care for him.
So in 2015, Ko decided to retire and become a full-time caregiver to his father.
“He was 95 years old and I spent the last year of his life with him,” Ko recalled.
It was during that time that Ko said he began to see “all these things that really startled me. It’s pretty tough to be a senior citizen in this country. In Asia, older family members are taken care of by the younger generation, unlike the U.S. where old people are left to fend for themselves.”
He witnessed instances of seniors experiencing isolation and loneliness, and needing help to move around or feed themselves. Ko noticed that many of the healthcare workers are from overseas “because most American young people don’t want to work in this field.” And now, with punitive immigration laws preventing foreigners from coming to the United States, Ko fears there will not be enough caregivers to go around in the future, hurting seniors.
Soon after, Ko met some people in AARP and he started volunteering himself.
“Someday, I’ll be [elderly] and I certainly don’t want to go through some of the hassles they go through.” By volunteering, Ko said, “Indirectly, I’m helping myself in the future.”
One of Ko’s first tasks as an AARP volunteer was to engage the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
“AARP has a million members,” Ko said. “But as far as AAPIs, that number is fairly limited.”
Ko built on groundwork AARP had already established, such as networking with Kin On, CISC, and Keiro. He continued to build relationships within the community, joining organizations such as Chinese American Citizens Alliance.
When asked about activism, Ko said, “A lot of AAPIs don’t like to get in front of people and lead a movement or drive an initiative to change things.” He stressed, “It’s important to get out there and make sure your voice is heard.”
One of the biggest wins for AARP in 2019 was passing a long-term care measure in the Washington state legislature that will help people pay for a variety of services, including in-home care aides, adult family homes, assisted living, skilled nursing facilities, and others. The benefit can also be used to pay for medical equipment like emergency alert devices, and services including but not limited to home modification, transportation, or meal preparation.
“The Long-Term Care Trust Act will create a public long-term care program, providing Washingtonians with flexible and meaningful benefits, ensuring families can choose the care setting and services that best meet their loved one’s needs,” said Ko. Based on a payroll premium of just over one half of 1 percent (.58%), vested and eligible workers would receive a lifetime benefit of $36,500, indexed to inflation. The payroll premium will be collected starting in 2022 and the trust will pay benefits starting in 2025.
Ko said he’s also proud of the work AARP did to help pass legislation to protect seniors from fraud in the case of data breaches. Ko and AARP are now turning their attention to capping the cost of prescription drugs and Ko said, AAPIs can help.
“There are a lot of middle aged AAPIs in the Seattle area who are affluent with good positions in the workforce.” Ko said it’s time to get involved. “We could really use your support,” calling AAPIs a “big, impactful community.
Ruth can be reached at email@example.com.