This story was produced with support from the Asian American Journalists Assn. and AARP, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering people 50 and older to choose how they live as they age.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, June Bai’s weeks were filled with a diverse range of activities she looked forward to doing.
Bai, 69, enjoyed the freedom she had to attend dance and tai chi classes and evenings at the symphony.
That all came to an end when the country began shutting down in March.
“Because of the pandemic, all those social activities were cancelled, so I couldn’t engage with people,” she said through an interpreter, Eileen Ni, director of community wellness at the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center (AASCSC). “I lost my joy. I could only stay at home and take care of my father. That’s the only thing I could do.”
Like many people across the country, Bai has struggled to adjust to the new reality brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Multiple nonprofit organizations providing direct services to Asian Americans, who account for roughly 20% of Orange County’s population, said seniors like Bai are among the most vulnerable within the population. Leaders within those groups say they’ve seen a rise in mental health issues including isolation, stress, depression and anxiety among seniors throughout the last nine months.
Jennifer Wang, chief operating officer of AASCSC, said some seniors it serves learned about the coronavirus in January through loved ones in Asia. With that information, some opted to begin quarantining at that time and have been doing so since then.
“And they are a very high-risk population,” Wang said. “They know that their age and physical condition is not in their favor.”
It has been challenging for seniors who, prior to the pandemic, led active lives by taking the bus. Lorraine Tuala, program manager at the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance, said even if seniors want to go out, they know they’re more vulnerable to severe consequences of the virus.
Mary Anne Foo, founder and executive director of the community alliance, said the pandemic has increased isolation for Asian American seniors who were already homebound because having visitors is risky.
“We’ve seen lots of anxiety, depression and people needing resources in general,” Tuala said.
Cypress resident Kyung Sook Kwon, 75, lives with her daughter and two grandsons, which has kept her from feeling isolated. She said the biggest challenge for her has been staying inside for so long. Prior to the pandemic, she would go grocery shopping, exercise outside and meet with friends.
She does her best to stay indoors now because she worries about getting the virus. But it has been a challenge because she often feels cooped up, she said.
For some Cambodian seniors, the stay-at-home orders have triggered trauma they experienced under the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, under which more than 2 million people died.
“A lot of times, our community members don’t say it, but when they tell stories, it’s triggering,” said Amina Sen-Matthews, health and mental health program director at Santa Ana-based nonprofit the Cambodian Family. “During the Khmer Rouge, everything went on lockdown too and everything was in chaos. They attribute the same thing with lockdown.”
To quell community members’ concerns and attend to their needs, the nonprofit Wang leads, AASCSC, encouraged seniors to reach out 24/7.
“They were really scared,” she said. “They’re also cognizant of anti-Asian resentment out there, and they weren’t sure if they’d be able to protect themselves from the virus or physical attacks or any psychological attacks.”
Santa Ana resident Jia Ye, 74, said through Ni, the director of community wellness at AASCSC who served as an interpreter, that she hasn’t been plagued by any mental health issues throughout the pandemic and maintains a social life through video calls. But she shared one instance of discrimination she experienced earlier this year: she was yelled at while she walked on the street while wearing a mask.
Several nonprofit groups serving the Asian American community at the beginning of the pandemic banded together to serve seniors by establishing the Love Our Elderly and Vulnerable Coalition, also known as the LOVE Coalition. Foo, whose organization is part of the coalition, said it has reached out to at least about 6,000 seniors on multiple occasions through phone calls and socially distanced visits.
On Mother’s Day, AASCSC staff delivered flowers and cards in native languages to seniors. On Father’s Day, they delivered gifts to senior fathers. And on the Dragon Boat Festival holiday, the organization prepared steamed rice dumplings for seniors, Wang said.
Organizations in the coalition have also provided oximeters, PPE, disinfectants and other items seniors have requested, Foo added.
Another way groups have been helping seniors through isolation is by facilitating virtual activities through Zoom. The Cambodian Family has held yoga, exercises, English and citizenship classes to provide seniors a place to socialize, Sen-Matthews said. Last month, it also held a lunch gathering through Zoom where participants brought their favorite dishes.
“We heard from older adults that they miss coming to the agency. Especially for the ones who don’t have any kids, we are their family,” Sen-Matthews said. She added that one of their clients shared she felt abandoned when staff at the Cambodian Family began working remotely and disclosed depression and suicide ideation. The agency responded by assigning a case manager to call the client every day to mitigate feelings of isolation and also referred her to a therapist.
Katie Tran, grants and program manager of Hope Community Services, a nonprofit in Santa Ana that’s part of the LOVE Coalition, said the majority of people it serves are monolingual seniors, many of whom don’t drive. In the earlier months of the pandemic, one of the rising needs for seniors that nonprofits serving Asian Americans saw was food that catered to the community.
The coalition has served more than 3,000 Asian American seniors with ethnic food they weren’t able to find at mainstream food banks, including basmati rice, soy sauce, ramen and seaweed, Train said. Groups also delivered hot meals to seniors.
“I think there’s this assumption that seniors and elders are valued in Asian Pacific Islander communities,” Wang said. “But if that were the case, our organizations wouldn’t exist.”
Impact on business owners
Business owners in Orange County’s Asian American community have also struggled with the shutdowns that have resulted from the pandemic.
Foo said OCAPICA has seen increased rates of depression and suicide ideation and attempts among Asian American business owners. Some have reported hate incidents, including spray painting on brick-and-mortar locations and broken windows.
The community alliance’s mental health program has helped clients enduring the crisis, Foo said, by identifying the source of stress for clients during the intake process. From there, the organization can either offer direct assistance or make referrals to existing resources.
It has also responded to the stress and confusion business owners have experienced, in part due to the lack of in-language resources, by helping business owners figure out how to apply for unemployment and small business loans.
Much of its work in helping business owners involves assisting them in navigating available resources, Foo said.
Christie Nguyen, co-owner of Studio 18 Nail Bar which opened in Tustin in 2017, said her salon saw its profits grow every month since it was established. She and her brother, who co-owns the business, were considering opening a second location. But they had to close down for six months beginning in March, leading them to put that plan on hold.
“It’s taken a huge emotional toll and mental toll, not knowing when you’ll be able to reopen, if something you worked hard to build over all these decades is going to survive this or not,” she said. “That’s something that really haunts us every day.”
Nguyen said sales at the nail salon have declined 75%. The business also only received a small amount of rent assistance, putting Nguyen and her brother severely behind on rent payments.
The daughter of Vietnamese refugees who sought the American dream and a mother to three young children, Nguyen has worked to maintain a positive attitude in front of her family.
“It’s been really hard,” she said. “A lot of times I find myself trying to protect my parents from the reality of it because there’s no point in all of us stressing about it.”
For some Asian American business owners in Orange County, including Nguyen, caring for other community members in need has served as a crucial coping mechanism during these unprecedented times. She got involved in an advocacy group called Nailing it for America, which she said distributed hundreds of thousands of PPEs and thousands of meals to those in need. It served as a much needed distraction, she said.
“I think without that, it would’ve been really difficult because I would’ve had to constantly think about the pandemic, about when are we going to reopen again.
“You can sit home and wait to reopen or go out there and make a difference to help others move forward from it,” she said. She added that although it was also exhausting to be so heavily involved, it helped her emotional and mental health.
Viet Pham, owner of the Recess Room restaurant in Fountain Valley, also poured time and attention into serving his community two days after his business had to shut down in March. While sales declined 75% in the first month, he started up a weekly food drive for Vietnamese seniors, a group he said he feels is underserved.
Despite the widespread worry brought on by the pandemic, Pham focused his attention on the silver lining in his situation, including the restaurant’s existing customers, rather than on what was lacking.
“For me that’s just a lost cause,” he said. “Thinking about negativity doesn’t help me as an individual.”
Better services for Asian Americans needed
Leaders from some nonprofit groups, including Ellen Ahn, executive director of Korean Community Services in Buena Park, say that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the lack of services designed to serve Asian Americans.
While the pandemic has been stressful for everybody, among Asian Americans, it has been especially stressful for those who are monolingual, have recently immigrated to the United States, are low income and uninsured, she said.
“COVID-19 has exposed that the infrastructure, whether it’s the public infrastructure or private nonprofit infrastructure, just is still under developed to respond to a county that has rapidly shifting demographics,” she said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of introspection and dissection in where we went wrong with COVID-19 in this county.”