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May 17, 2022

Asian American Older Adults in the US: on a sense of belonging and care

Daniel Lo

The PDF in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal, Vol. 43, Issue 5.

Asian Americans (AA) are the fastest-growing population in the US according to Pew Research Center. Asian Americans are often perceived as the “model minority,” a term that describes the academic and economic success of Asian Americans compared to other minority groups. Despite its positive overtone, the term is not without controversies. It not only creates a racial wedge between minority groups but also overshadows the unique challenges faced by the AA community. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the challenges faced by a particularly vulnerable population among Asian Americans: the older adults, as shown by the rising violence towards AA seniors on the streets. Yet, little has been written and discussed about Asian American seniors beyond the AA community. As such, this article seeks to answer the questions: What makes Asian American seniors a particularly vulnerable group in the US? What social initiatives can be created to help AA seniors overcome their unique social and cultural barriers? 

Contrary to popular belief based on the model minority myth, studies have found that Asian American older adults experience more emotional distress than the general older population. Taking a look at New York and California, two states with one of the highest AA populations in the US, will give us broad insights into the well-being of AA seniors. In New York City, AA older adults are found to experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness compared to the city’s overall older adults population. Furthermore, results from the California Community Health Survey revealed that AA seniors experience significantly lower life satisfaction and receive less emotional support than other racial counterparts in California. These experiences can be explained by the unique social and cultural challenges experienced by AA seniors. 

Asian American seniors, especially those from immigrant backgrounds, are more prone to feel social isolation and lack a sense of agency due to language barriers. In New York City, 1 in 3 Asian seniors lives in a limited English-speaking household. From internet bills to phone calls to doctor appointments, AA seniors’ daily lives can heavily depend on younger children or grandchildren to function. Previous studies have suggested the importance of a sense of agency, which refers to “the feeling of control over actions and their consequences,” on healthy aging. The limited English ability among Asian seniors coupled with their dependencies on their children can decrease their sense of agency, thus having health implications for their aging processes.   

Furthermore, the financially vulnerable state of Asian American older adults increases their dependence on their children. A 2019 study conducted by Nam et al.  in Los Angeles found that many older Asian immigrants lack familiarity with the US financial system. The result is limited access to financial services and financial planning for retirement. Additionally, many AA seniors do not have sufficient work histories in the US, limiting their Social Security benefits eligibility. This is evidenced in New York City, where AA seniors were less likely to receive Social Security benefits compared to their other race counterparts. In order to be fully eligible for Social Security benefits, an individual or their spouse needs to have at least 10 years of work history in the US. Moreover, Social Security retirement benefits are based on an average of the person’s 35 highest years of earnings. If the work history is less than 35 full years, the years before moving to the US lowers the average. Due to either their ineligibility or low retirement benefits, many AA seniors apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is not based on prior work history but based on low-income status in the US. The SSI benefit level leaves the person living below the poverty line.

In face of these language, cultural, and economic barriers, Asian American older adults often rely on their family and ethnic community resources to navigate American society. 

Familial support of AA older adults stems from not only a need but also a cultural responsibility. Filial piety is the responsibility of the young to take care of and give back to their older parents. These cultural expectations become more complicated when considering intergenerational differences. Studies have suggested that there is an increasing number of AA adults who cannot fulfill their parents’ expectations of filial piety, underscoring the shift in cultural norms for second- and third-generation AA growing up in the US. This mismatch in expectations generationally can have psychological consequences for the AA older adults, as evidenced by a study revealing that older Chinese immigrants were found more likely to be depressed if they were dissatisfied with the amount of family support they received.

Beyond family support, ethnic community resources play vital roles in supporting AA older adults. On the technical side, ethnic communities can provide necessary language and translation help and give AA older adults access to important information through outreach programs. For example, they can help older adults with limited English proficiency obtain financial services. Moreover, ethnic-specific social support and community-building programs can help foster a sense of belonging and social connection that can positively impact the mental health of older adults.


It is critical to recognize and understand that Asian American older adults, as the fastest-growing racial group in the US, are facing unique challenges in order to provide care and services tailored to their needs. There are a few ways to approach caring for AA seniors. First, one must dismantle the model minority myth. Only by recognizing the diverse experiences within the AA community can we start paying attention to the unique challenges faced by AA older adults daily. Second, it is essential to increase access to mental health and financial services by eliminating the language, cultural, and economic barriers. This can be done by internal reform in the formal sectors, such as creating incentives for clinics and banks to hire professional translators. Alternatively, formal sectors can work directly with community-based organizations that have been providing the services and have established trust and relationships with the community. By working together, different sectors can provide their expertise and strengthen the network of care for the AA older adult communities.


The term “Asian American” encompasses a diverse population. This article is limited in a way that the studies referenced in this article focus primarily on East Asian populations within the US. Additionally, according to Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are the most economically divided group in the US. The disaggregated data challenges the common perception of Asians as a “monolithic” group and reminds us of the many unique experiences among individuals who identify as Asian American. Secondly, most existing studies on older Asian immigrants have focused on those who lived in areas with well-established Asian populations, such as NYC or Los Angeles, where ethnic resources are more likely to be available. There is limited literature on the health of Asian American older adults residing in US cities with less densely populated Asian American populations. Future research should look into the unique needs and challenges of such populations.

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    Daniel Yun-Chian Lo

    Intern at ABA Commission on Law and Aging

    Daniel Yun-Chian Lo is an Intern at ABA Commission on Law and Aging for spring 2022, American University, Washington Semester Program, BA in Sociology expected spring 2023 at Colorado College.