Mahjong Night At The Retirement Home: West Meets East In Senior Housing

Aug 31, 2015

It’s a dilemma many American families confront: when to ask mom or pop if they’re ready to move into an old folks’ home. For newer Americans, the very idea often clashes with cultural expectations.

A for-profit senior housing chain and a Seattle nonprofit are separately investing millions of dollars to expand senior living options specifically geared for Chinese elders. The demand for this housing reflects changing attitudes among Asian immigrant families about how to give and receive care in old age.

Redmond, Washington-based senior housing operator Aegis Living is targeting Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants with a $50 million luxury retirement community that will soon rise from what is now a vacant lot in the Seattle suburb of Newcastle.

Among the amenities will be a Zen garden, sports den and a Mahjong room - a gaming room. Some other planned features in this hundred unit, private-pay facility include multilingual nurses, "chair tai chi," a tea room, Asian foods on the menu and a Chinese multicultural center.

‘A Western type-of-culture thing’

Aegis Living founder and CEO Dwayne Clark said demographic research uncovered a huge market for culturally appropriate senior care.

"There's 92,000 Chinese-Americans within 25 miles,” he said. “There are 30,000 within seven miles. I said, 'You're kidding.' I couldn't believe that."

Clark said for good measure his company brought in a Feng Shui consultant to review the site plans. The development has been named Aegis Gardens.

Across Lake Washington in southeast Seattle, construction is also underway. A nonprofit called Kin On is spending about $7 million to expand its nursing home into a campus. When completed, it will provide a continuum of housing options for elderly Asian immigrants.

Sam Wan has been Kin On's director from the beginning, 30 years ago. The halls now echo with conversations in Cantonese and Mandarin. But Wan remembers the initial doubts about whether Chinese families would put their elders in an old folks' home.

"The newer immigrants would be considering having their elders stay at their home,” he said. “They live together, three generations together. The nursing home phenomenon is a pretty much a Western type-of-culture (thing).”

Are Chinese-American families are ready for this?

That pretty much describes the expectations placed on Pam Tsai and her sister. The sisters took in and looked after their aging mother. But then mom, who doesn't speak English, needed skilled nursing care.

"My ma, she likes Chinese food. She talks Cantonese,” Tsai said. “She likes it here."

Because Kin On accommodates those needs, the family finds it acceptable.

Clark recalls similar conversations about whether Chinese-American families are ready for this.

"I remember meeting with this one woman who was a high-tech executive,” he recalled. “She said, 'You know, Dwayne, I spent almost $200,000 going to Stanford getting my undergraduate degree and my MBA. I don't know that I want to stay at home taking care of my mother-in-law. I want to put my MBA to work.' She said, 'I think this is an idea whose time has come.'"

The challenge then for Clark and colleagues is to be better than staying at home.

"If you're the best, then the guilt of people having their mom and dad in this place will dissipate,” he said. “It will go away.”

Destination retirement living

Clark said he's also looking at building luxury senior housing for Chinese in Vancouver, BC. The company's first project with that focus opened more than a decade ago in the San Francisco Bay area.

There's a historical twist to the current project outside Seattle. It happens to face China Creek. The place name dates back more than a century to when immigrant Chinese laborers settled higher up along the creek. They found relative safety there after their huts in a nearby coal mining camp were burned by a xenophobic mob.

"It's come full circle, yeah," Clark said with a twinge of wonder in his voice. "It's fascinating to me."

Clark said he also connects to the fraught history by way of marriage. His wife's grandfather was a Chinese-American longshoreman in Seattle, who in the family lore famously won a salmon derby in the 1940s, but was denied the top prize because of his ethnicity.

The reputation of the Pacific Northwest is so much improved that the Aegis Gardens developer anticipates the facility could become a "destination" retirement location.

"I think we're going to have a great amount of people come from China," as well as closer locations with large Chinese populations such as Portland and Vancouver, Canada, Clark predicted.

Clark said a 2013 Chinese box office hit elevated Seattle's profile in China. The romantic comedy "Beijing Meets Seattle" - re-titled "Finding Mr. Right" in its international release - portrayed Seattle in a fetching light. Although, like most productions set in Seattle, it was mostly filmed in Vancouver.

"It was like the 'Sleepless in Seattle' thing," Clark explained. He said he tried to get the lead actress to come to the Aegis Gardens groundbreaking last month, but was foiled by a scheduling conflict.

Clark explained it is legal to pursue a specific ethnic group without running afoul of discrimination laws as long as a housing provider shows willingness to rent to any qualified applicant. Both Kin On and Aegis Gardens' first location in the Bay Area have some non-Chinese residents.

Kin On and Aegis Gardens cater to different clientele within the Northwest’s Asian and Asian-American population. Most of Kin On’s residents qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. Clark said the luxury-class suburban Seattle Aegis Gardens will charge an entrance fee of $15,000-$60,000 and monthly rent of $3,500-$8,000 depending on the unit.

Other examples of "culturally competent" assisted living/retirement homes for Asian seniors include Seattle Keiro, which opened in 1976 for Japanese elders, and the pan-Asian Legacy House, operating since 1998 in Seattle's International District.