By Theo Koob
When my 할아버지 (harabeoji or grandfather) in Korea passed, the aftermath on my family was devastating: my family sobbed for days, with my mother becoming almost despondent. However, the person I worried the most for was my grandmother. She and my grandfather had been married for over 50 years—they were life partners. Most of her family lives overseas, and her son, who does live nearby, had just started a company and a family. Suddenly, my grandmother had lost her warm home and found herself in an empty memorial of her old life, feeling alone and isolated.
Isolation and its impacts
While this piece stems from a paper I wrote for my class about isolation and suicidal ideation within older Korean adults, I realized it could be contextualized to Asian seniors in the greater Seattle area as well. These scenarios are common for older adults. Spouses are left alone with some individuals not having anyone to begin with. In many cases, they live far away from family, unable to foster impactful connections around them. Isolation is not uncommon in older adults. However, with an aging community, this issue becomes all the more pressing. Increased isolation in older adults has been associated with poor mental health, increased rates of suicidal ideation, and faster transitions to states of frailty. While poor mental health and suicidal ideation or suicide are outcomes of isolation, I would consider frailty almost a partner of isolation. Frailty, or the state of being frail, comes with age, but looking at the relationship between isolation and frailty, there is a cyclic progression between the two. It is limited to only physical symptoms but also includes mental debility such as feelings of helplessness.
I have witnessed this trend with my grandmother. Just a few years ago, she would go on daily walks, grocery shop regularly, and see friends and family often. However, after the passing of my grandfather and as the family moved further away, she started feeling increasingly scared of her regular routine and living became much harder for her. Recently, a majority of the interactions she receives are from family calls, or visits from the one branch of the family still in Korea.
While I have focused on isolation in the sense of losing social networks, it also exists when social networks are still present. Older Asian males traditionally take on the role of breadwinners and take pride in doing so. However, when they are unable to fulfill that duty, this characteristic becomes extremely harmful. They feel isolated in their roles and in many cases refuse to or feel too ashamed to ask for assistance. This expands to not only inability to ask for financial assistance but for social and emotional support. In many cases, isolation can be avoided, but steps must be taken to mitigate its disproportionate effects in older adults.
Strategies to combat isolation
Studies have shown that group level interventions for seniors can drastically decrease levels of loneliness/isolation. While programs like King County’s senior hubs address some of this issue, there are still many being left out. The mediums by which these programs are executed are of the utmost importance whether they be cultural or physical. For example, high school volunteers in China sponsored weekly tai chi sessions for local seniors. This not only provided an outlet for physical activity but for social satisfaction as well. However, as I mentioned, frailty in some groups must be considered as well.
This can be addressed through the use of digital resources. Programs such as group computer literacy training also focus on multiple issues simultaneously. They help overcome barriers such as digital engagement while again providing outlets for social interaction. Seniors are then also encouraged to keep in touch with each other through digital mediums like email or Skype.
We can also be doing things to mitigate this issue ourselves directly. As I worry for my grandmother, I am sure you all worry for your grandparent(s) as well. I encourage you to reach out to your grandparents on a regular basis. Keep them engaged and cared for. Further than that, engage your grandparents’ friends and other connections who may be experiencing social isolation. If you are able to, set up informal programs for your community. This can be as simple as connecting seniors and having them meet independently after your initial involvement. In the long run, a strong social network is essential in preventing further instances of isolation and ultimately suicide in Korea’s older adult population. This population is a silent one with an invisible voice—it is our duty as the ones who come after them to speak and act for them and find ways to improve not only their situations but ours in the future.