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In a break with tradition, new retirement community targets Asians

By Deborah Kong The Associated Press
Thursday January 03, 2002

FREMONT — In the kitchen, the chef wields his wok over a fiery stove, preparing the day’s lunch. Two rice cookers — one with a softer batch of rice for those without teeth — simmer quietly in a corner. 

This is Aegis Gardens, a for-profit assisted-living community for Asians. While about a half-dozen nonprofits have provided housing and services for Asian seniors, experts believe that Aegis Gardens is the first for-profit company to target this ethnic niche. 

Aegis also highlights a growing trend in the past 10 years — a break with the Asian tradition of elders living with their adult children, said Jennie Chin Hansen, executive director of On Lok Senior Health Services in San Francisco. 

According to Confucian teachings, children must follow a filial obligation to care for their aging parents. But as successive generations become more westernized and less observant of old customs, and couples pursue dual careers, some of the ancient traditions are fading, said Clayton Fong, executive director of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, a Seattle-based advocacy group. 

“The times are changing. There are very few people that stay at home and just serve their parents,” said Winnie Poon, whose 80-year-old father, Edmond Wong, moved into Aegis a month ago. “There are a lot of second, third-generation Chinese-Americans who can afford to keep their parents in comfort.” 

According to 2000 census data, about 22 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders 65 and older lived with an adult child who was head of the household. That’s by far the highest of any group (Hispanics were the next largest, at 12 percent), but it’s down from 24 percent in 1990. 

The trend of aging Asians moving into assisted living communities, a middle ground between independent living and nursing homes, rather than with adult children is likely to continue, Fong said. 

“Whereas you have old traditions, the realities of today don’t necessarily allow for it,” Fong said. “With each passing generation, those traditions sort of disappear.” 

The shift reflects changes in the attitudes of both parents and children. 

Living with his adult daughter could have “very bad results,” said Peter Kung, 88, who with his wife Garbo, 87, moved into Aegis about a month ago. “Children have their own thinking, their own life.” 

His daughter, Alice Chang, said she feels “a big burden is lifted from me.” The 53-year-old computer analyst often found herself cooking for and taking her parents shopping, and doing chores at their four-bedroom home. 

Kung, a retired United Nations senior officer who walks with a cane, enjoys the Chinese food, and being around other Chinese seniors. He especially likes the Chinese titles of respect the Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking staff uses. “Old people are always forgotten people,” he said. But at Aegis, “everybody calls us ’uncle,’ ’aunty.’ We feel at home.” 

“You feel like you live in a high-class hotel in China,” said Fay Yee, 84, who said she was glad she declined offers from her daughter and daughter-in-law to come live with them. 

“They have their own life,” Yee said. “I’m not going to depend on nobody, so I decided to live here.” 

Since it opened in November, about 58 percent of Aegis’s 64 rooms have been reserved. Residents in their late 60s to early 90s live in studio and one-bedroom apartments, which range from $1,980 to $3,780 a month per person. All but one are Chinese. 

Redmond, Wash.-based Aegis Assisted Living owns and operates 15 assisted living communities on the West Coast. Assisted living residential communities, which provide seniors help with daily tasks such as bathing, dressing or taking medication, began opening in the United States about 15 years ago. 

The Fremont Aegis Gardens is the first to focus on a specific ethnic culture, a venture the company spent three-and-a-half years researching and planning. Fremont, about 25 miles southeast of San Francisco, is about 37 percent Asian. 

Aegis appointed an eight-member, all-Chinese advisory board. One of the first things to go was the corporate color, blue, because it’s associated with funerals in the Chinese culture. The blue stripe on business cards was changed to maroon, as were the shirts of employees’ uniforms. 

The company also petitioned Fremont’s building department to change its street address because it contained the number four, which is connected with death. 

More than avoiding cultural pitfalls, the company also paid attention to details. It spent about two days looking for dishwasher-friendly, reusable chopsticks, said president and chief executive Dwayne Clark. 

The kitchen has extra prep and storage space for the fresh vegetables and fish favored in Chinese cuisine. 

Signs and name tags are in English and Chinese. Acupuncture is available and activities include mahjong, calligraphy classes and viewing old Chinese-language movies. 

Aegis is waiting to see how the Fremont facility fares before deciding whether it will build others, Clark said. It hopes to fill it within 16 months, he said. “This is certainly a beta test for us.”