Immigrant elders seek housing options to age in community
by Ling-Mei Wong. This article originally appeared in Sampan Newspaper.
Hong Lok House means “healthy and happy” house in Cantonese, where elders can live in Chinatown for less than $500 a month on average. A full range of culturally and linguistically sensitive programs provided by management and providers make it a safe and welcoming home for elderly to age in place. Services include home care, health care and a hot meal delivered to the homes.
“There is seldom a vacancy at Hong Lok House,” said Ruth Moy, executive director of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, which runs Hong Lok House. “The only time a vacancy opens up is when the elderly can no longer stay safely at home, due to failing health, and need to enter a nursing home.”
In Boston, projected increases in the older population are expected to reach 130,000 seniors by 2030. As more people choose to live in Boston, elders are being squeezed out of housing. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh testified July 16 at the Statehouse about two bills for the right to counsel and protections for seniors in just-cause evictions, so elders can remain in their homes.
“These bills rank among the highest priorities for the City of Boston this legislative session. They advance our commitment to being a city where everyone has access to a stable and secure home — regardless of income, age or family situation,” Walsh said in a prepared statement.
When the Golden Age Center first launched in 1972 out of a storefront, it focused on serving meals and provided a place where elders could socialize and obtains social services. The opening of Quincy Tower in 1978 provided a kitchen for the Golden Age Center and clients in its 152 units of affordable senior housing. Hong Lok House opened in 1981 with 28 units, with South Cove Plaza East and West completed in 1982 for 241 units of senior housing. While Hong Lok House expanded to 74 units in 2013, the wait lists for older adult housing in Chinatown are years long, as supply has not kept up with demand.
“There is a shortage of subsidized elderly housing everywhere, not just in the Chinese communities, because elders are the fastest growing population and they are living longer,” Moy said.
Walsh’s testimony highlighted the plight of a 77-year-old man who had lived in his Fenway home for more than 40 years, who suddenly got a notice to quit this summer. Another man, 88, lives in a building which was sold, and his new landlord wanted a rent increase he could not afford.
“This treatment is not acceptable for seniors who spent their lives here and helped build our communities,” Walsh said. His administration has promised to build more affordable housing.
Moy found aside from housing, Chinese elders needed services. The Golden Age Center offers older adult day programs, so seniors can enjoy themselves and have a meal.
“Socialization is very important,” Moy said. “Housing with supporting services and family is important to keep elders at home in the community.”
While Moy did not train as a social worker, her grasp of Toisanese — the predominant Chinese dialect spoken in the 1970s — helped her understand the needs of older adults. Asian seniors hoping to reside in the Boston area must seek out sustainable living models to support them as they approach an advanced age.
“When they came to the country, they worked hard and did a lot of caregiving, until they’re no longer needed,” Moy said. “Maybe they were living in the suburbs taking care of grandkids. They all long for senior housing. They’re so happy for some independence and friends.”
Elder housing allows older adults to live independently, when keeping up a private home becomes too much work. Rehabilitation centers and nursing facilities provide more services for elders in need, with South Cove Manor at Quincy Point providing culturally sensitive care since 1985.
“I was a founding member of South Cove Manor, because in those days, the only nursing home I remember which had some Chinese people was in Tewksbury,” Moy said. “That was really cruel: they didn’t speak English, they didn’t have Chinese food and they couldn’t communicate.”
Another reason older adults do not want to move to a nursing home is they must give up their income from Social Security to pay for a portion of their living costs. However, it is difficult for most seniors to get into a nursing home unless they are extremely frail.
“We have so many people living in Quincy and coming to Chinatown,” Moy said. “But they get older and need more care.”
Senior housing at Hong Lok House allow seniors to live on their own terms, and nursing facilities offer long-term care. Having housing plans allow Asian immigrant elders to age securely in their communities.
This article was written with support from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and The Commonwealth Fund.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.