Ageism, Racism, and Culture as Determinants of Productive Aging Among Asian/Asian American Communities


This article provides an overview of the context of work, volunteering, and caregiving among Asian and Asian American older adults informed by Asian Critical (AsianCrit) Theory. Examples are provided from the existing literature on productive activities while highlighting challenges (ageism, racism, and culture) and recommendations for cultivating equity and justice opportunities in productive activity engagement.

Key Words:

Asian and Asian American, productive aging, ageism, racism, culture, Asian Critical Theory


During the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian and Asian American (A/AA) communities experienced heightened racism. Between March 2020 and March 2022 in the United States, among the ethnic groups reporting hate incidents (n = 11,467), Chinese had the highest percentage, followed by Koreans (16%), Filipinos (9%), Japanese (8%), and Vietnamese (8%; Stop AAPI Hate, 2022). A/AAs reported that they were more stressed by experiences of racism than by the COVID-19 pandemic, and experiences of racism were associated with negative mental health conditions (Hahm et al., 2021, as cited in Stop AAPI Hate, 2021; Saw et al., 2021).

A/AA older adults were targets of hate crimes, too. A 2021 survey found that 98% of A/AA adults ages 60 and older who reported hate incidents perceived that the United States had become physically dangerous for A/AAs (Stop AAPI Hate, 2022). On top of that, older A/AA women represented an even higher percentage of reported hate incidents than older A/AA men (Takamura et al., 2022). However, A/AA communities are less likely to seek support due to cultural barriers and fear of racism (Stop AAPI Hate, 2021).

Productive activities are defined as paid or unpaid activities performed by older people that can contribute to the greater society (Bass et al., 1993, as cited in Gonzales et al., 2015). Such heightened discrimination against this population has made it much more challenging for A/AA older adults to remain productively engaged in work, volunteering, and caregiving. Yet, there is very little literature comprehensively examining these experiences. This article focuses on these experiences and how they relate to the challenges and strategies of productive aging for A/AA older adults.

Although the present article will focus on examples of some A/AA subgroups, the author acknowledges that there are other communities experiencing injustice, such as the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities. The author also recognizes that NHPI communities have diverse and unique historical experiences that shape their lived experiences and activity engagement, as discussed in my other studies (Lee et al., 2023). The author recognizes that it will not be possible to discuss all A/AA cultures and diverse experiences in this article.

Asian Critical (AsianCrit) Theory

Although most productive aging literature has used various theoretical perspectives, no study has fully integrated AsianCrit Theory with the productive aging perspective when focusing on A/AA older adults.

AsianCrit Theory offers the following seven tenets to help understand the lived experiences of A/AAs:

  1. Asianization
  2. Transnational contexts
  3. (Re)constructive history
  4. Strategic (anti)essentialism
  5. Intersectionality
  6. Story, theory, and praxis
  7. Social justice

Asianization, transnational contexts, and (re)constructive history are tenets reflected in Critical Race Theory (Iftikar & Museus, 2018). Intersectionality, story, theory and praxis, and social justice help in understanding the impact of White supremacy on A/AA experiences. AsianCrit is useful in analyzing issues of oppression toward achieving an equitable and free society.

Utilizing AsianCrit can help create culturally appropriate productive activity opportunities for the A/AA older adult population.


The following section on work is particularly relevant to these tenets from AsianCrit Theory: “Asianization (i.e., the impact of White Supremacy and racism resulting in stereotypes),” “transnational contexts (i.e., focus on how previous and current global economic, political, and social experiences),” “(re)constructive history (i.e., the invisibility and silence),” and “social justice (i.e., efforts to eradicate oppression) (Iftikar & Museus, 2018).”

Recent studies exemplify how A/AAs experienced increased challenges in their engagement with work during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, A/AAs with lower education levels were more likely to lose employment compared to their White counterparts (Kim et al., 2021). A/AAs also found it difficult to regain employment (Kim et al., 2021).

Ageism as a Barrier to Engaging in Work

A large proportion of older A/AA immigrant healthcare workers experienced ageism and other forms of discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic (Ma et al., 2021; Takamura et al., 2022). Following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, some Asian subpopulations came to the United States to work in frontline service occupations (Ma et al., 2021). This trend had significant implications during the COVID-19 pandemic: at that time, about 21% of AAPI workers ages 55 and older worked in service occupations, which is about 6% higher than for the overall U.S. population (Ma et al., 2021).

‘At a policy level, employment rights and anti-discrimination laws should be widely disseminated to employers and employees.’

Despite providing important care and essential services to the public (Lee & Blacher, 2013; Ma et al., 2021), older A/AA workers faced heightened discrimination and challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, it was an extremely difficult time for older adults as they faced greater ageist narratives from society and in the workplace, and even more onerous for A/AA older workers as they faced anti-Asian rhetoric on top of increased ageism.

Racism as a Barrier to Engaging in Work

Historically, Asian immigrants came to the United States for various work opportunities and played a significant role in economic and social development. Hmong refugees have engaged in agricultural activities (Tsu et al., 2017), and immigrants from India have worked in the agriculture, lumber, and railroad industries (Hanna & Batalova, 2020).

One notable example of discrimination against Asian immigrant workers in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating and barred Chinese immigrants from obtaining U.S. citizenship (United States National Archives, 2023). With the perception that Chinese immigrants took away employment opportunities from White people, they became the targets of hate crimes. In 1885, Chinese miners in Wyoming were murdered by their White coworkers in what became known as the Rock Springs Massacre. The brutality of this event showed how Chinese workers became scapegoats for societal challenges.

More recently, negative employment and workplace experiences have been reported among A/AAs (Shang et al., 2021). Increased experiences of racial microaggressions during the COVID-19 pandemic were documented by healthcare workers of Asian descent (Shang et al., 2021). They have experienced microaggressions from various groups (e.g., the public and patients), including being asked about ethnic origin, experiencing direct avoidance, and receiving explicit racial profanities (Shang et al., 2021). A/AAs were attacked at work via negative verbal messages (e.g., being called “COVID-19”) and received death threats because of their race (Toh et al., 2021).


Ageism and racism have prevented older A/AA workers from equal and just work opportunities and environments. Support groups and mental health services for older A/AA workers that are culturally appropriate could help them navigate the process of properly responding to workplace discrimination or unfair employment opportunities. At a policy level, employment rights and anti-discrimination laws should be widely disseminated to employers and employees. Reflecting on their history of invisibility and silence, various stakeholders (e.g., community organizations, policymakers, and researchers) should collaborate to develop ways to help A/AA older adults be perceived as valued contributors to society through equal work opportunities.


The following section on volunteering is particularly relevant to the intersectionality tenet of AsianCrit Theory. Formal volunteering is defined as an unpaid or minimally compensated activity to provide support through a formal organization. Informal volunteering is defined as providing help outside of a formal organization (Morrow-Howell, 2010).

There is a lack of research focusing on culturally and linguistically diverse older adults, such as A/AA older adults, and volunteerism in the United States. There are even fewer studies focusing on A/AA subgroup differences and volunteerism (Sundeen et al., 2007). Although this article presents limited examples from some A/AA subgroups, more studies are needed to understand how diverse A/AA older adults are engaged in volunteering and to identify the unique needs of each group.

For instance, several studies examining volunteerism among East Asian older adults in the United States have found that Chinese immigrant older adults gain health benefits through their volunteering experiences. However, it is important to note that people with better English language proficiency, higher education, and better self-perceived health had higher odds of volunteering (Lee et al., 2018; Mui et al., 2013). Similarly, among older Korean immigrants, limited English proficiency and a lack of information about formal organizations were found to be barriers to participating in formal volunteering (Chang, 2022).

There are limited studies on other groups of A/AA older adults, especially South Asians and Southeast Asians in the United States. Despite the benefits of volunteering, the lack of empirical evidence on diverse A/AA volunteering experiences makes it difficult to identify the mechanisms to promote their volunteering engagement.

Barriers to Volunteerism

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016), Asians had a lower volunteering rate (17.9%) compared to White (26.4%) and Black (19.3%) Americans. Yet, there are limited studies on volunteerism among A/AA older adults. Issues of diversity, such as cultural and ethnic characteristics, can be associated with civic activity engagement. Engagement mechanisms for meaningful participation in volunteering opportunities include promoting a co-producing volunteering environment and developing a sense of belonging (Lu et al., 2023). The absence of such mechanisms can be a barrier to cultivating a culture of volunteering among Asian immigrant older adults in the United States, whose cultural backgrounds may lead to a different understanding of volunteering and who may have limited English proficiency.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened anti-Asian racism it brought cast older A/AA older adults aside by making it even more challenging for them to participate in meaningful, productive activities.

Moreover, older immigrants, racial-ethnic minorities, and low-income older adults encounter greater barriers to participation in volunteering programs as they often are not aware of these programs (Foster-Bey, 2008; Gonzales et al., 2015; Lai et al., 2021). Furthermore, there were more older A/AA women spending time volunteering than older A/AA men. Volunteering barriers for A/AA older adults were related to their intersectionality, yet society has no supportive infrastructure through which to engage them.


At a practice level, it is important to collaborate with various ethnic enclaves to mobilize volunteers and promote various engagement opportunities within the community. As English proficiency was identified as a barrier to volunteering, working with ethnic enclaves and ethnic-specific volunteering organizations can encourage A/AA older adults to volunteer. At a policy level, it is critical to strengthen access to volunteering infrastructure by providing volunteering information in multiple languages, providing transportation support, and incentivizing community organizations to hire employees who can speak multiple languages. Diverse immigrant older adults want to serve the community, yet studies on such volunteerism among older immigrants are limited. More research is needed to understand the needs, challenges, and patterns of volunteerism among A/AA older adults.


The following section on caregiving is particularly relevant to the intersectionality and the “strategic (anti)essentialism (i.e., White supremacy racializes AAs as a monolithic group)” tenets of AsianCrit Theory (Iftikar & Museus, 2018).

Formal caregiving, defined as helping a person in need through paid professional care services, and informal caregiving, defined as unpaid care often through personal and social networks, have been important ways of supporting older adults and their family members in some cultures (Li & Song, 2019). Immigrants from places where cultural values emphasize respect toward older adults may perceive greater ageism and discrimination when they move to the United States, resulting in conflicts in caregiving roles and expectations.

Barriers to Caregiving

Although A/AA caregiver subgroups were not disaggregated, it was found that A/AA caregivers generally are engaged in work while taking care of others for about 36.7 hours per week. They also are engaged in stressful caregiving activities compared to Black or Hispanic caregivers. Their well-being is at risk as they feel a great responsibility to care for others but use less formal support than non-Hispanic White caregivers (National Alliance for Caregiving & AARP, 2020).

In addition to the caregiving burden, some A/AA caregivers have difficulties acculturating. For instance, Japanese American caregivers face challenges as caregiving values change, more women work outside the home, and family structure evolves (Mokuau & Tomioka, 2010). Less acculturated Filipino-American grandparents encounter parenting and health challenges (Kataoka-Yahiro et al., 2004).

Furthermore, studies have reported that caregivers and older adults experience ageism and discrimination. For instance, caregivers may experience informational prejudice (i.e., an inability to receive critical information) and encounter a lack of age-related admission policies (e.g., a lack of specific guidelines for hospitalization; Gholamzadeh et al., 2022). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2022) states that caregiver discrimination violates federal employment discrimination law. However, these laws do not protect people solely based on their caregiver status. Employees who are caregivers may be protected by laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act.

A/AA family caregivers reported facing more challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a study focusing on Korean American older adults and their caregivers, almost a quarter of the participants were fearful for their safety as anti-Asian sentiment increased (Han et al., 2023).


To alleviate the stress and other mental health consequences of the discrimination mentioned above, offering caregiver training opportunities in multiple languages would be important for diverse A/AA subgroups. Addressing cultural barriers, language limitations, limited culturally appropriate services, and a lack of education/information are important in serving A/AA families. Policy-level support to promote community outreach and education collaboration with specific ethnic enclaves for caregiver support is important. Researchers can inform caregiving services by examining how different A/AA subgroup cultures influence their caregiving practices. Although A/AAs have often been viewed as a monolithic group, it is critical to identify the unique needs and areas of caregiving support for each subgroup. Scholars and advocacy groups can engage A/AA representatives in coalition-building and scientific advancement in this area by studying A/AA caregivers who have intersecting identities.


The COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened anti-Asian racism it brought cast A/AA older adults aside by making it even more challenging for them to participate in meaningful, productive activities. Systemic and societal efforts would be important in: recognizing the diversity and heterogeneity among A/AA older adults in their productive activity engagement experiences; developing educational opportunities to understand the history and challenges/strengths of A/AA older adults; promoting positive rhetoric on the identities of A/AA older adults; and committing to providing culturally relevant productive activity engagement opportunities.

Informed by AsianCrit Theory, policymakers, practitioners, educators, researchers, and other stakeholders can collaborate in acknowledging the collective challenges of the A/AA communities while developing long-term goals to support the diverse A/AA subgroups and to respect their cultures. Promoting panethnic advocacy work while providing culturally relevant productive activities can help to eliminate the barriers that A/AA older adults have been facing. The increased visibility of injustice during the pandemic motivates us to cultivate opportunities to create equitable, productive engagement for all in later life.

Yeonjung Jane Lee, PhD, is an MSW gerontological specialization chair and assistant professor at the Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.  

Photo credit: Shutterstock/PitukTV



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