November 13, 2013
Not All Asians Are the Same: Diversity within the AAPI Older Adult Population
By: Karen Thurston

When our nation talks about Asian Americans, it often groups together people from different cultures and those who speak different languages. Someone from China faces different challenges than a refugee from Cambodia, yet research typically wouldn’t show this. As a group, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) are the fastest growing population in the United States. Despite the large and rapidly growing population, research and data on AAPI elders is limited and often presented in aggregate (i.e. grouped together). Aggregate data belies the diversity and the challenges faced within the AAPI older adult population.

The National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA) recently published five reports that paint a fuller and more accurate picture of the challenges many APPI older adults face. The reports divide the population into three groups (aged 55 & older, aged 55-64, and aged 65 & older) and highlight the language, economic, and employment characteristics of AAPI elders. NAPCA used publically available sources from various government agencies, and disaggregated (or separated) the data to better depict the realities of the AAPI older adult population (55+). See an example below.

Percent Below Poverty Level

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2006-2010 American Community Survey, 5-Year Estimates

Demystifying the “Model Minority” Stereotype

Asian Americans, in particular, are often celebrated as a “model minority,” with high levels of education and income. NAPCA found, however, that over 20 percent of elder Koreans, Tongans, Hmong, Marshallese, and Bhutanese live below the Federal Poverty Level. Additionally, less than 50 percent of Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and Hmong aged 65 years and older hold a high school degree, and less than 10 percent of Laotians, Tongans, Cambodians, and Hmong have graduated from college. NAPCA’s reports also show that aggregate data mask the alarming facts that a number of elder AAPIs are living in overcrowded housing, have limited English proficiency, or are linguistically isolated.

The scarcity of data by AAPI ethnic group, especially for the elder population, is very apparent. Without disaggregated data, however, it is increasingly difficult for advocates and policy makers to accurately depict the needs of AAPI elders. For instance, results from NAPCA’s CBO survey revealed that economic security is a top priority issue for AAPI elders, yet aggregated data indicate that AAPIs (65+) have high median household incomes. Why do community-based organizations (CBOs) rate economic security as a challenge if AAPI elders have high median incomes? The reality is that many AAPI ethnic sub-groups are actually some of the most impoverished in the country. This is only apparent, however, once the data get disaggregated.

It’s difficult to tell the full story without all of the facts. Disaggregated data is necessary to truly understand the needs of the AAPI population and to produce, highlight, and publish data so that CBOs, policymakers, and other stakeholders have the information they need to make responsible, informed decisions.