Asians overcome cultural stigmas in order to treat Alzheimer’s

By Lucas Anderson
For Northwest Asian Weekly

Kin On resident Ting Chung Eng (left) and Kin On resident Zhen X. Huey (Photos by Lucas Anderson)

“In Asian culture, nobody will disagree with you if you want to take care of the elders,” said Sam Wan, chief executive officer and a founding member of Kin On,  an elderly care organization based in Columbia City and created specifically to serve the Chinese community.

Kin On’s creation and operation has had a positive impact on the Chinese community, said Wan, but it did not come without opposition. The concept of an elderly care facility works against the strong Chinese traditions of family and caring for one’s elders, he explained.

Armed with this knowledge, and a continuing desire to meet the needs of its community, Kin On’s staff members created the Kin On Community Care Network, a home care and educational outreach program for families choosing to care for their loved ones at home.

With the help of a GlaxoSmithKline grant, Kin On developed a home care service, caregiver support system, and hospice services. In addition, the Kin On Care Network added an Alzheimer’s disease and dementia program that was unprecedented among ethnic care programs in the Northwest.

Alzheimer’s disease is an incurable, degenerative brain disease that destroys brain cells and one’s thinking, behavior, and memory.

The different perceptions of dementia or Alzheimer’s often create a barrier for  mainstream facilities in delivering proper care. For the Chinese, the National Institute on Aging says language and traditional values often interfere with diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

According to a report funded by the NIA, “Terms used for dementia in Chinese include ones that translate into English as ‘stupid and silly’ or ‘less smart.’ ” Similarly, the common Chinese characters associated with dementia translate to ‘crazy’ and ‘catatonic.’ Alzheimer’s is also often generalized in the Chinese community as a psychiatric illness, not a unique disease.

“It’s hard for them to accept,” said Jane Wong, the social services director of the Kin On Community Care Network. “In the more traditional Chinese thinking, they don’t know what it is. They don’t see it as a disease.”

In King County, Alzheimer’s was the fourth leading cause of death from 2003 to 2007, just behind stroke. It was also the seventh leading cause among Asian/Pacific Islanders. Asian Americans have the highest life expectancy of any ethic group (87.4 and 82.1 years for women and men, respectively) and Alzheimer’s prevalence increases drastically over the age of 80. However, the rate of death due to Alzheimer’s in the county’s Asian population is slightly more than half that of the entire population, according to the King County Department of Public Health.

Wong and the Community Care Network have made progress through the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Support program, which provides informational and educational support as well as home visits. Wong, with the help of another co-worker, visits 21 clients throughout King County every month, focusing on helping the caregiver and assessing the needs of the family.

The largest hurdle is language. While nearly all of Kin On’s staff members speak Chinese and English, many information resources are available only in English.

The nursing home has made accommodations for its patients living with Alzheimer’s in the facility. “We felt that it was important for people who have Alzheimer’s that we treat them to be a part of our resident community,” said Wan. In the building, frequent color changes and an outdoor portion diversify the scenery, replacing long, repetitive hallways that can confuse Alzheimer’s patients. The facility has a very low turnover rate for staff as well, a consistency that Wan believes is important in the care for Alzheimer’s patients.

As it nears its 25-year anniversary, Kin On is still developing and adapting to the needs of its community.

Wan said the center dodged a bullet with a recent veto of budget cuts by Gov. Chris Gregoire, but it has still experienced a funding decline in recent years.

Kin On’s funding comes from its residents, mostly through Medicare and Medicaid patient reimbursements from the state, grants, and public donations. While state reimbursement has declined, the beds at Kin On are never empty.

The Community Care Network is funded by client payments through Medicare and Medicaid. Wan believes that if the center provides the services the community needs, the support will be there.

While these struggles continue, Wan is making preliminary plans to build a 50-unit senior housing project, as well as a ‘Healthy Aging Center’ on land surrounding the care facility in Columbia City. ♦

Lucas Anderson is a University of Washington journalism student.  He wrote this story for a course on global health reporting.

He can be reached at

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One Response to “Asians overcome cultural stigmas in order to treat Alzheimer’s”

  1. Judie Higashi says:

    I am a R.N. at Asian Ommunity Center in Sacramento, Ca. I would like to know about the GSK grant. As it is a pharmaceutical company, are there requirements to use whatever drugs they have on the market?


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