Center caters to Vietnamese
ARLINGTON, Texas – For years she was a radio announcer in Vietnam, but as a 74-year-old immigrant to the U.S., Oanh Tran’s ability to communicate is limited.
The idea of going to a senior center was intimidating – at least until she found Texas Golden Age Adult Day Care Center.
The Vietnamese-oriented senior center gives her a place to interact with her peers, and the affection she feels from others there, she said, “makes me feel like I belong.”
That’s the idea at Golden Age, which Loan Ngo and husband Yduc started two years ago in Arlington. About 140 Vietnamese seniors are enrolled, with about half showing up on any given day for tai chi classes, games of Chinese chess, Asian food and basic medical attention from onsite nurses.
“We’re old, too, so we understand what they need,” Ngo told The Dallas Morning News. She’s 69; her husband is 78.
Monthly activities include birthday celebrations and styling services.
“Look!” Ngo said, stopping a woman passing with a plate of pork and rice to display the woman’s freshly manicured hands. “All the women have beautiful nails.”
Vietnamese communities in the U.S. are barely four decades old, their older generations formed by lives of war, suspicion and displacement.
Largely concentrated in San Jose and Orange County, Calif., and to a lesser extent Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, they carved out enclaves where culture and language could be preserved as they assimilated to American life.
The members of that first generation who fled Vietnam are now into their 60s, 70s and 80s. Meanwhile, their children are grown and busy, caught between raising their own kids and taking care of aging parents who traditionally live in the same household.
“They don’t have time to stay home and take care of them,” said Mai-Phuong Nguyen, a physician and board member of Acacia Adult Day Services in Garden Grove, Calif. “The American style is to do your best to keep them at home and then, when you can’t handle them anymore, to institutionalize them.
“But for Asian people, that’s a huge surrender to failure as an adult child.”
The inability to meet cultural expectations can lead to stress and feelings of guilt, said Grand Prairie attorney Arthurine Kamphaus, who volunteers legal advice to the Arlington center and its clients.
“It’s expected, culturally, that we’re supposed to support and take care of our elders,” Kamphaus said. “In Vietnam, everybody chips in to help.
“If I have my parents at home and I go to work, I feel OK because my neighbors will watch out for them. Here, you might not even say ‘hi’ to your neighbors or know who your neighbors are.”
Ngo hopes the culturally based center helps those grown children avoid guilt.
She and her husband escaped Saigon five days before it fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, finding new life in Baton Rouge, La. After retiring, they came to Arlington to be closer to their children, volunteering for medical missions in Southeast Asia before they tired of the traveling.
“We thought: There’s people here who need help,” Ngo said. “We don’t have to go over there.”
About 72,000 Vietnamese live in the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth area, as categorized by the U.S. census. According to 2010 figures, that’s the second-largest Vietnamese population in the state, after metropolitan Houston.
Texas has the second-most Vietnamese in the nation with 211,000 – making the state a distant second to California, home to nearly three times that many.
Elders are often unaware of or reluctant to take advantage of senior services, put off by language and cultural barriers.
Chau Vo, who helps transport many of Golden Age’s seniors, said some are uncomfortable with drivers who only speak English. Therefore, they’re hesitant to call traditional transportation services.
He recalled one man who tried driving himself to the day care center and ended up calling 911 after running out of gas in Denton.
Vietnamese-speaking drivers, he said, can take the seniors to medical or social-services-related appointments, translate for them and help fill out applications.
Meanwhile, caregivers who aren’t culturally integrated can help with basic needs but are otherwise challenged to connect with Vietnamese-speaking clients, leaving seniors feeling essentially alone.
“They can’t communicate with them,” said Mai Nguyen, who runs a home-care operation adjacent to Golden Age. “They can’t cook Vietnamese food. They don’t know where the Asian stores are or how to help them choose the things they need. That’s why it depends who the worker is.”
Even with a caregiver, isolated seniors don’t fare well, said Orange County’s Nguyen. “A well-run, culturally sensitive senior center is a godsend for these seniors,” she said.
Giving them a place to socialize and stay active, she said, helps stave off the cognitive decline that might eventually send them to nursing facilities.
For 70-year-old Lam Bui of Fort Worth, Golden Age is a place to catch up with friends and to exercise in a more social setting.
“I can talk with people here and ask for help when I need it,” said Bui, who moved to the U.S. with his family in 1994. “I like everything about this center. It helps me to not be stressed or depressed.”
And most days find former Vietnamese Air Force pilot Trung Le, 88, looking for an opponent at the center’s Chinese chess table.
“As a senior citizen, this is a good place to be,” he said. “I am happy here.”