How communities are helping homebound Asian American seniors with limited English skills

Already at high risk for infection, older AAPI people are also more likely to live in poverty, and many are socially and linguistically isolated.
Working with King County Metro Access and a cohort of volunteers, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service delivered 440 bagged hot meals and 280 bags of groceries to homebound seniors on May 1.
Working with King County Metro Access and a cohort of volunteers, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service delivered 440 bagged hot meals and 280 bags of groceries to homebound seniors on May 1.Cory Morimoto / ACRS

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By Claire Wang

Every weekday at 11:30 a.m., a dozen buses roll into the parking lot of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, a Seattle-based nonprofit, to pick up roughly 450 hot meals and 280 grocery boxes for homebound seniors around King County. The meals, which are prepared in-house, rotate between Asian staples such as curry chicken, seafood congee and fried rice, as well as halal options. Groceries include bok choy, instant noodles and fresh fruits.

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced the statewide stay-at-home order in mid-March, the service was planning to distribute free meals at its senior centers in Seattle’s Chinatown, said G. De Castro, the center's director of aging and adult services. But no one was coming in.

“Even though we made 40 meals available, we would only have one or two pickups a day,” he said. “That’s when we pushed hard to get delivery going.”

Seattle's Asian Counseling and Referral Service delivers nutritious and culturally appropriate food to local AAPI seniors. A daily grocery delivery typically includes bok choy, instant noodles, and fresh fruits.Cory Morimoto / ACRS

For social service providers, looking after older AAPI people during the coronavirus outbreak can be a challenging endeavor. Already at high-risk for infection, many of them are also socially and linguistically isolated, which makes online and word-of-mouth outreach ineffective. The poverty rate among older AAPI people is also significantly higher than that of the general population. The partnership between Asian Counseling and Referral Service and King County Metro is one of many new ad hoc collaborations between established community organizations, transportation services and mutual aid groups to address these difficulties.

“Our staff speak over 40 languages and dialects, and we've been doing regular welfare calls on our seniors,” De Castro said. Through these check-ins, they’re able to identify their most needy constituents and prioritize deliveries accordingly. The staff have personally distributed meals in places the Metro couldn’t reach. (The service also delivers 150 emergency meals to at-risk people under the 60.)

Chef Salima Mohamath prepares meatball and potato soup for AAPI seniors.Cory Morimoto / ACRS

In addition to bridging the language gap, social service organizations also provide tech support for a demographic that doesn’t spend all day on the internet.

“The challenge of serving seniors is that we can’t just use social media,” said Muhammed Fazeel, a representative of the volunteer-run delivery service Shaper Hands. “Making connections with community-based groups is so important because they have connections that we don’t.”

In mid-April, Shaper Hands partnered with the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging to deliver groceries, medications and other necessities to seniors in Seattle and Los Angeles. Instead of navigating the web, customers can place a phone order and pay through the aging center’s helpline, whose operators are fluent in multiple Asian languages and who will relay the request to a Shaper Hands volunteer. (Lyft has become a third partner, offering free rides to volunteers delivering to the center’s clients.)

“We’ve had to make a lot of changes in a short time to serve as many people in need as we can,” said Joon Bang, the center on aging's chief executive, adding that the organization has been relying on ethnic news outlets for help with outreach.

In the week after the new partnership launched, helpline traffic more than doubled from an average of 220 calls to 462, Bang said. (The total number of grocery orders is likely lower, however, as many older people dial in for other teleservices that the center offers, including guided meditations.)

Working with King County Metro Access and a cohort of volunteers, ACRS delivered 440 bagged hot meals and 280 bags of groceries to homebound seniors on May 1.Cory Morimoto / ACRS

Some long-standing AAPI organizations acted early to pool all resources into creating a hunger relief program.

“We knew that everyone we serve would have food insecurity in the coming weeks,” said Thoai Nguyen, chief executive of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition, which serves about 17,000 people in South Philadelphia, 99 percent of whom live at or below the federal poverty level.

The coalition launched its food distribution and delivery initiative on March 16, but Nguyen and his team began fundraising and reaching out to suppliers and immigrant-owned restaurants two weeks earlier. So far, the organization has supplied more than 6,500 boxes of cooked meals and groceries. Starting this week, it’ll make 1,400 meals available at its distribution centers, 200 of which will be delivered to the most vulnerable clients, like older people who live alone and single mothers with more than one child.

“Coordination is challenging because we rely on remote outreach workers,” Nguyen said. Because of the high volume of deliveries, drivers couldn’t wait long for confirmation from clients, leading to reports of theft and lost packages.

A flurry of mutual aid groups — decentralized volunteer networks that provide direct support to people in need — has been supplying muscle to the essential services that community organizations provide.

The Chinese-American Planning Council, which serves roughly 60,000 seniors in New York City, has partnered with various suppliers and restaurants—including the GrowNYC market and the Malaysian eatery Kopitiam — to distribute groceries and meals to homebound clients.

The South Brooklyn community mutual aid group provides a handful of satellite drivers to facilitate more than 100 weekend deliveries in Bensonhurst and Sunset Park, where more than 90 percent of clients speak no English, said Steve Mei, director of planning council’s Brooklyn operations. Drivers are paired remotely with staff members who communicate directly with the seniors to troubleshoot issues and alert them when the food arrives.

“They were really excited to be connected,” said Whitney Hu, a co-organizer of the mutual aid group. “It’s a fun opportunity for folks who are used to working in communities with mostly native English speakers.”

In some ways, the partnerships between community organizations and volunteer networks have emerged to compensate for the city’s lackluster response to the hunger crisis, Hu said. New Yorkers can request grocery deliveries by calling 311, but the process is slow and glitchy. And the provisions themselves, little more than applesauce, potato chips and a few pieces of bread, are far from nutritious or culturally sensitive. The boxes the Chinese-American Planning Council provides, by contrast, contain fresh fruits and vegetables, rice and pinto beans.

“If we want people to quarantine, we need to make sure we’re giving them the resources to feed themselves,” Hu said.

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