Elderly Filipinos in America: Bored, neglected and longing for home

This story was taken from Bulatlat, the Philippines’s alternative weekly newsmagazine (www.bulatlat.com).
Vol. VI, No. 36, Oct. 15-21, 2006

The U.S. is currently the biggest source of remittances to the country. But behind the seeming affluent lives of Filipinos in the U.S. are stories of neglect, boredom, and longing that Filipino-American elders face.
BY REYNA MAE TABBADA
Bulatlat

LOS ANGELES – The export of human capital to keep the economy afloat alters traditional modes of interaction within the Filipino family: an itay (father) gives advice through e-mail; an inay (mother) comforts through a celfone, as well as ates and kuyas (older sisters and brothers) share stories through video streaming. And following the Filipino practice of extended families, how can we forget the birthday cards with dollar bills enclosed from lolo and lola (grandfather and grandmother)?

Filipinos overseas are hailed by the government as “mga bagong bayani” (new heroes) because their dollar remittances give life to an otherwise sputtering economy. And the U.S. is currently the biggest source of remittances to the country. But behind the seeming affluent lives of Filipinos in the U.S. are stories of neglect, boredom, and longing that elders face. Whether they have fully settled in their adopted country or are just waiting for the right time to come back home, their experiences can be told in a similar tone, one that is distant and bittersweet.

Bayanihan on foreign shores

The easiest way to look for elderly Filipinos in the U.S. is through the numerous apartments especially made for senior citizens. More often than not, one would find a group of senior Filipino-Americans (Fil-Ams) living together in one building. And with such proximity comes the practice of bayanihan, the local tradition of lending a helping hand to one’s neighbor, which may range from sharing home-cooked meals to organizing fund-raising events for the local church.

An example of such a small Filipino-American community can be found in the city of Long Beach, California. Directly in front of St. Mary Medical Center along Atlantic Avenue is the St. Mary’s housing project for senior citizens where persons of legal status aged 65 years and above can avail of low-rent apartments. It is an abode for a group of Fil-Ams who are living off their pensions and other privileges accorded to seniors like weekly rations and taxi vouchers.

The Filipino elders who live in the St. Mary’s housing project have their own stories to tell: Elsa is the widow of a veteran from the Bataan Long March where thousands of Filipino soldiers died; Caridad was able to bring all her children to the U.S. as well as maintain an on-off relationship with her boyfriend; Melchora continues to send financial support to her family back in the Philippines; while Gabriela failed to finish her education and learned to read and write English by herself.

All have relatives as well as government-appointed social welfare officers to check on them once in a while and act as contact persons in cases of emergency. But they also have an informal system of looking out for each other as they spend day after day in their apartments worrying about the families they have left a thousand miles away.

A day in the life

The primary concern of senior citizens living in the housing project is how not to get bored. Like Elsa and her friends, the television is considered the everyday companion of elders. Though city officials as well as non-government organizations offer free trips to historic sites like museums, organize various symposiums relevant to older generations and sponsor dances participated in by different elderly groups, these are not enough to keep them entertained. This is where the importance of a peer group, like Elsa’s, comes in.

The almost daily round of apartments starts around eleven o’clock in the morning, when each one has finished preparing lunch. Usually, Gabriela makes the trip since she owns a “Mercedes”, a battery-powered wheelchair with control wheels and brakes. After eating their share of each other’s dishes, they would either go to siesta (afternoon nap), play a game of domino, or gossip while taking their merienda (snack between meals). In order to save energy as well as electricity, their lunch would also be their dinner or until they are able to consume everything in their pantry, be it made by them or given by others. At night, usually before nine o’clock, they would call each other to make sure that nothing untoward happened and if so, would be able to respond immediately. There were cases when an elder suffered a heart attack in the middle of the night and was found dead in the bathroom the next morning.

Because of mobility problems as well as health restrictions, they go out only when necessary. One of the reasons for them to do so, aside from family affairs, would be to get their monthly ration of canned goods, cereals, biscuits, and whatever food products big businesses are kind enough to give for charity. Though the dietary requirements of elders like them are taken into consideration, it seems like the expiration dates are not. Sometimes it would only be days before the product expires. But because of a need or a want, they always say, “Pwede pa naman yan (It will still do)”.

Another reason for them to get exercise is to pick up some grocery items, usually after their pensions have arrived and the rent and bills have been paid. They would usually shop at the small warehouse store adjacent to their building, a short walk across the side street. Yet this also poses a danger to them, since there are instances when thieves on bicycles target elders. Melchora had been robbed once at the sidewalk which leads to the store. But the bigger danger comes from reckless drivers who ignore traffic signals. There were already a number of hit-and-run cases which claimed the lives of elders, with some being hit in a hospital zone directly across the St. Mary’s Medical Center emergency room.

Bittersweet but better off

Aside from Gabriela, whose nephews and nieces take care of her, everyone in the group has at least a child staying in the U.S., either legal or illegal. Because of advances in communications nowadays, all are able to keep track of developments in the Philippines. And it is apparent in their casual afternoon exchanges how much the situation in their home country has changed, maybe for the worse. Melchora commented, “Nung grade one ako, isang sentimo baon ko, at malaki na yun. Ngayon yun apo ko, singkwenta ang baon, kulang pa.” (When I was in grade one, my allowance was one centavo and that was a lot then. Now, my grandchild’s allowance is fifty pesos and is still not enough).

Elsa’s elder sister recently died back home, and to express her grief, she and her friends held a padasal (praying sessions) for nine days. While they were finishing their snacks after praying, the discussion centered on whether they preferred to stay in the U.S. or to go back home to spend their last years in the Philippines.

One prefers to stay because of the health care plan they are entitled to in the U.S. as a senior citizen. Another said she prefers the climate in the U.S. Someone shared that she bought a plot in a cemetery near their hometown in the Philippines and she would like her ashes to be buried there. All complained of relatives being pushy and expecting too much from them just because they have worked abroad. They agreed that they miss their families back home, but since some of their children and relatives are in the U.S., then it would have to suffice.

But the most striking statement was: “Because here, it feels more like home.” Bulatlat

© 2006 Bulatlat ■Alipato Media Center

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