BY DOUA THOR, FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SOUTHEAST ASIA RESOURCE ACTION CENTER (SEARAC)
My grandmother helped raised almost all of the grandchildren in our family at some point or another. My grandmother had nine children and because my family came to the United States as refugees, most of our parents had to work multiple jobs. My parents, aunts, and uncles were grateful to have her support. At the federal level, we separate the issues of elders from the rest of the population in policy discussions. Sometimes, those issues are even pitted against each other, and we are made to think that providing for elders means that there is less for young people. On the ground in communities, however, the lives and well-being of elders are closely intertwined to the well-being of communities and families. Like my grandmother, elders support families in economic, emotional, and spiritual ways. And yet, their contributions are often overlooked and unappreciated. Southeast Asian American elders, have become invisible to the mainstream.
As they age, many Southeast Asian American elders (who arrived as refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) face numerous barriers and challenges to attaining long term care. As a community, over 90% of Southeast Asian Americans 65 and older in California live in family households, as opposed to institutional alternatives. There are limited services that allow elders to remain in their own homes, and there are even fewer opportunities for culturally and linguistically-specific services that would support the independence and living choices of elders. SEARAC works toward ensuring that there is adequate and stable funding and resources for programs that support elders who choose to maintain independent lifestyles in their homes and their communities and to ensure that provisions of the Affordable Care Act preserve and improve existing community-based and in-home care programs. Additionally, SEARAC works to ensure that aging policies address language access provisions and culturally specific needs of elders so that English language learners have access to vital information and resources.
We also work to ensure that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for elders is preserved. SSI is a crucial lifeline for refugees who are elderly or disabled and who also live in poverty. For many elderly and disabled refugees, the federal SSI program provides the bare minimum for survival—no more than $698 per month for an individual and 1,048 for a couple. As part of the 1996 Welfare Reform laws, SSI was restricted to a 7-year limit for elderly and disabled refugees and humanitarian immigrants who are not able to obtain U.S. citizenship within that time frame. As a result, thousands of elderly and disabled refugees have lost, and will continue to lose, their benefits. SEARAC continues to work toward a long-term legislative solution that ensures that elderly and disabled refugees and humanitarian immigrants do not lose their SSI if they are unable to successfully naturalize.
As populations in the United States grow increasing older and more diverse, the needs of our diverse elder communities can no longer be ignored. That is why SEARAC is proud to be a member of the Diverse Elders Coalition. We recognize that many of the economic security challenges that face refugee elders from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam also affect diverse elders in other communities. Working together, we are much more effective than if any of our populations worked in isolation. My hope is that the policy and program solutions we work toward will continue to help and give back to elders like my grandmother who have already given so much of their lives to ensure that the next generation flourishes.
Doua Thor is the Executive Director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.