The COVID-19 Effect on Older Asian Immigrants

Among adults ages 65 or older in the United States, Asians are the fastest-growing immigrant group. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian racist incidents (e.g., verbal harassment, physical assault, property vandalism) have spiked and many attacks targeted older immigrants. Immigration history and physical phenotypic distinctiveness make Asian Americans susceptible to racism and xenophobia, which have resulted in the scapegoating, ostracization, denigration, objectification and dehumanization of Asians in the COVID-19 context.

Anti-Asian racism, however, is not new. Throughout U.S. history, there have been numerous instances of treating Asian Americans as “others” and “outsiders,” including flagrant state-sanctioned racist policies and practices (e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and Japanese Internment during World War II). This societal perception of Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners” and not “real” Americans relegates this group’s needs invisible, especially among marginalized communities where many older Asian immigrants reside. For instance, there was a lack of linguistically accessible information about COVID-19 testing and prevention for older immigrants.

The higher COVID-19 mortality rates among older Asian Americans (many of whom were immigrants) relative to non-Hispanic Whites also went without adequate governmental attention and resolution.

Stereotypes Used to Marginalize Older Asian Immigrants

Another prevalent stereotype about Asian Americans is that they are a “Model Minority.” This stereotype, which sees Asian Americans as an untroubled, compliant and well-to-do minority group, has been used to deny racial disparities and discrimination encountered by this group. Subsequently, Asian subgroups, such as low-income immigrant older adults, who experience stark disparities due to racism, have been ignored and overlooked. The perception of being a perpetual foreigner, coupled with the model minority stereotype results in the marginalization of Asian Americans and renders them and their needs invisible. This invisibility intersects with the spate of anti-Asian racism and violence and threatens older immigrants’ physical and mental health.

‘Anti-Asian racism and violence disrupts neighborhood cohesiveness and creates community disorder.’

Studies indicate that since the COVID-19 pandemic, people of Asian descent have experienced more mental health concerns than non-Hispanic Whites in the United States, and that experiencing COVID-19 anti-Asian racism is related to higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms.

Additionally, vigilance about discrimination can produce anticipatory stress, and vicariously experiencing discrimination (e.g., seeing or hearing about violence suffered by other Asian elders) can trigger significant distress and traumatic reactions. Although empirical studies have yet to focus on the impact of anti-Asian violence on older immigrants, the related studies described above suggest that mental health problems like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders or trauma symptomatology will likely impact this population, particularly those with vulnerable conditions (e.g., poor health status, living alone, pre-existing mental health concerns, financial difficulties).

Some Asian-American elders have responded to the rise of anti-Asian violence by standing up for themselves and advocating for their Asian American communities. However, elders with vulnerable conditions may not have enough resources or support to stand up for themselves—instead, they may respond to the rising hate and violence with fear, anxiety, distrust of others and withdraw from social and community networks. Anti-Asian racism and violence disrupts neighborhood cohesiveness and creates community disorder, which can promote distrust of and disengagement in social institutions, including avoiding seeking needed mental health (and other) services. Such withdrawal may further contribute to social isolation and loneliness, increase depression risk and deepen health disparities.

The violence directed at Asian elders not only affects older adults, but also family members, as research shows how parents’ experiences of COVID-19 anti-Asian discrimination negatively impact their offspring’s mental health. While some families have stood firm and even became emotionally closer in the face of the violent attacks upon their elders, families with existing strains or weak ties may struggle even more with the added stress from racism and trauma during an already formidable pandemic.

‘Advocacy for culturally and linguistically diverse accessible mental health services for older Asian immigrants is imperative.’

Immigration research indicates that many older Asian immigrants experience considerable acculturation stress, including being faced with misunderstanding (or lack of understanding) by their children due to generational differences in retaining ethnic values and/or adopting mainstream U.S. values; this is called the intergenerational acculturation gap and can cause significant family conflict, heightening psychological distress for older immigrants.

Anti-Asian racism and violence can add strain to pre-existing intergenerational gaps and conflict to further sour family dynamics. As such, it is important to not only attend to how anti-Asian violence impacts the psychological well-being of older immigrants but also how it impacts their family dynamics and well-being.

Advocacy and Systemic Strategies Necessary Going Forward

ASA members can help reduce anti-Asian racism and its harmful impacts on older immigrants, and Asian Americans in general, by raising awareness of this racism among their professional (and personal) circles. Advocacy for culturally and linguistically diverse accessible mental health services for older Asian immigrants is imperative, as there are more than 20 ethnicities/nationalities and spoken languages among Asian immigrants. Given the considerable stigma around seeking psychological help among Asian immigrant communities, collaborating with lay-providers like volunteer health advocates and grass-roots leaders such as community organizers on mental health-related topics like depression literacy and trauma symptom recognition may be necessary to reach diverse communities of Asian older adults.

Finally, implementing systemic strategies to resist and combat racism cannot be emphasized enough. Some initial steps can include: raising the public’s consciousness of the biased discourse and messages that perpetuate the “othering” of Asian Americans, particularly older immigrants; highlighting and appreciating Asian American history, ethnic cultural heritages, and contributions to U.S. society; exposing the invisibility and disparities faced by Asian Americans; and tackling racism, hate and violence collectively.

By raising awareness and fostering progress in systems such as mass media, education, healthcare and government to change anti-Asian narratives, Asian American elders and communities can receive the resources and protection they need.

Hsiu-Lan Cheng, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology at the University of San Francisco.