YOU'RE NOT ALONE
8:36 am
Fri November 15, 2013

Dorchester Mother, Daughter Upend Vietnamese Elder Care Tradition

Carol, left, and Quynh Doan.
Carol Doan (left) and Quynh Dang at the Standish Village Assisted Living Facility in Dorchester.
Credit Cristina Quinn / WGBH News

At the Standish Village assisted living facility in Dorchester, a handful of elderly folks sit in the living room on the main floor, their walkers, canes and wheelchairs nearby. One woman spots Carol Doan.

Carol isn’t hard to find. As the only Vietnamese resident among a sea of mostly white faces at Standish Village, she stands out.

"I speak with accent, so they can’t understand me," Carol said.

"Yeah, they have a hard time understanding my mom," said Carol's daughter, Quynh. A couple years ago, after her father died suddenly, Quynh and her 67-year-old mother faced a crisis.

"My father had been taking care of my mom," Quynh said. "She has diabetes and has trouble walking. So when my Dad died very suddenly, my mom lived with me for a short time. I was leaving her at home, and she was falling and burning food and things like that. I didn’t even know about assisted living. I just thought there’s nursing homes. Assisted living wasn't something that we planned for."

They didn't plan for it because Quynh had always assumed that her parents were going to live with her when they grew old.

"Because I’m Vietnamese, and that's just what we do," Quynh said. "And so I grew up with all these stories about parents sacrificing taking care of their kids, and kids growing up and taking care of their parents. And the idea of adulthood and independence is not growing older and moving away from your family. It’s growing older and taking care of your family."

In Asian cultures, it’s common for three generations to live under one roof. So when Quynh decided that it was best for Carol to live in an assisted living facility, her mother’s friends were quick to react.

"They had this idea that I was putting my mom away," Quynh said. "And they were like, 'Don’t do it,' and my mother’s friends actually started looking around for places for her to live so that I wouldn’t put her away."

But Carol, Quynh’s mom, says she likes living there, that she would feel isolated when Quynh is at work.

"Over here, if I want to see people, I just come down. A lot of friends-- they are good to me" Carol said. But there’s one thing Carol wish were different.

"I wish to have a Vietnamese friend live here with me," she said. "I am only Vietnamese here."

There is a lack of assisted living facilities in Massachusetts that cater specifically to the Asian community. Though most families in Asian communities typically assume the caretaking role of their parents, the cultural landscape is shifting, says Nam Pham, executive director of Viet-Aid, a community development corporation in the Fields Corner section of Dorchester.

"Life in America is very busy for everybody," Pham said. "Also, we no longer have such an extended family support as we have in Vietnam. Families are scattered in cities and the country. So it’s almost impossible for one or two persons taking care of an elder parent."

There are assisted living homes popping up in Vietnamese communities in Southern California and Texas, but with 30,000 Vietnamese-Americans calling the Greater Boston area home, Nam says there is a need for homes here — something that Viet-Aid is working on.

"We’ve been looking into different possibilities; however, it’s not easy," Pham said. "Especially building anything in Boston. No. 1 — it is very expensive. No. 2 — the bureaucracy, the process is not that simple. But we hope in a few years down the road, we will be able to build some assisted living for the Vietnamese elderly."

Back at Standish Village, Quynh and Carol say they are changing the way their Vietnamese friends view assisted living.

"So we’re kind of breaking down some of the myths in the community," Quynh said. "Well, first of all, people don’t know about assisted living facilities. They think of nursing homes. So that’s the first step. They’re like, oh, it’s too expensive. But I think if you plan for it, not just like financial planning, there are subsidies available, like Medicaid."

She also says her relationship with her mother has strengthened since the move.

"I feel a lot less guilty and I also feel like that I can focus on being her daughter and like, taking her out and spending time with her," Quynh said. "My mom likes it, too. So like, the flip side of the guilt. My mom also feels guilty when I take time off of work. And do all this stuff. So she feels a lot less guilty about the care that I provide."

A win-win for this mother-daughter duo — which is something that Carol is used to doing on bingo night.

"We play bingo, right Carol?" a resident named Isabelle said.

"Yeah," Carol said.

"My moms like to win with bingo," Quynh said.

"She didn’t win last week, though, but she’s Happy Sammy, right Carol?" Isabelle said, as she, Quynh and Carol laugh. "She fell asleep, she had a little nappy poo."

Some activities surpass language barriers, allowing these residents to focus less on their differences, and more on what they have in common.

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