Aging Immigrants Are Going It Alone

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

The names by its buzzers hint at a Little Odessa within.

Outside this senior apartment complex in Northeast Philadelphia, the bus stops six times an hour – allowing Sofiya Pustelnik to visit her husband’s grave four stops away, near the Neshaminy Mall, as often as she likes.

When her daughter in Cherry Hill beseeches her to move in – to leave the room of her own, hung with Van Gogh and Renoir prints and crowded with books – it is the memory of Boris, her husband of 48 years, that tethers her here.

“I loved him, and he loved me,” said the 78-year-old Russian emigre. “I have here my husband’s grave. I won’t leave him.”

The Robert Saligman House, where she lives, is among a growing number of apartment complexes nationwide doubling as fortresses for elderly immigrants breaking with the customs of their native countries by living apart from their families.

In their homelands, culture and economic hardship dictated multigenerational households.

But the stresses of life in a foreign landscape – with children too busy pursuing the American dream to pay full attention and grandchildren who, sometimes literally, cannot understand them – are beginning to unravel that custom.

Many older immigrants are gravitating to places such as the Saligman House or a nearby complex, called “the Soviet Army” by its residents – ethnic enclaves with elevators and a front desk.

“It is becoming even more and more common,” said Ailee Moon, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “After a certain number of years living with their adult children, the pattern is many elderly immigrants want to move out, and they do move out.”

Foreign-born seniors remain more likely to live with their families than their American-born counterparts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And 20 percent of elderly immigrants live alone, compared with 30 percent of native-born seniors.

Still, the longer an immigrant lives in the United States, the more likely he or she is to live alone, said Jennifer Glick, a sociologist at Arizona State University.

The government benefits, such as Section 8 housing vouchers, that certain immigrants become eligible for after five years in the United States often make the move possible. Being stranded in a house far from public transportation makes it desirable.

The New World Association of Emigrants from Eastern Europe, a two-decade-old mutual-aid society in Philadelphia, serves about 400 elderly clients. Ninety-five percent live alone in a half-dozen subsidized apartment complexes in the city’s Northeast. They cluster together partly to ward off a sense of displacement.

“It’s like a tree,” said Janna Doudoukalova, one of the group’s directors. “You can’t cut it and try to plant it somewhere else. It will never grow. That’s how they feel in the United States.”

The complexes are alternatives to the disconnected sprawl of the suburbs, where many of the seniors’ adult children fled in search of bigger homes and better schools, she said.

The suburbs, too, have spawned their share of refuges.

A miniature Koreatown has sprung up amid the manicured lawns, flower beds and townhouse apartments of St. Mary’s Village in Cherry Hill.

About 35 of its residents, or 20 percent, are older Koreans. Nine years ago, there was none.

Donald Chang, 78, one of the first to settle there, said word of the senior apartments, run by the Camden Diocese, spread through the area’s churches.

The retired businessman lived with four generations of his family in Seoul, the South Korean capital. Here, he lives alone, although his children own homes in Cherry Hill.

“The world,” Chang said, “is changing.”

Jung Bun Oh, 74, and Nam Yi Noh, 68, discovered that soon after coming to the United States from Korea.

Both expected to live with the families who brought them here in the last decade.

“Our culture is to follow the first son,” Oh said, affectionately clapping her first son, the Rev. Barnabas Choi, on the knee and flashing a thumbs-up.

“Now something changed,” she said, with Choi translating for her. “But usually Father and Mother in the old age follow the son.”

That path brought the two widows to Maple Shade in Burlington County. It plopped them – homesick – in the midst of a workaholic culture that robbed them of their children for most of the day. With their tiny arsenal of English (“thank you,” “sorry,” “welcome”), they could not communicate with their grandchildren. And the suburban streets, for the two non-drivers from the big city of Seoul, were obstacles.

Those streets are still a problem. But now they have their own apartments in a high-rise near the Echelon Mall in Voorhees – and each other for company.

Their days uncoil with scheduled nostalgia. At dawn, a van from New Horizons, a nearby evangelical church, ferries Oh, Noh and eight others at the complex to a Korean-language prayer service. Eleven sharp finds them glued to WYBE-TV (Channel 35) for Emperor Wang Guhn, a drama set in 10th-century Korea.

In between and afterward, they chat about their grandchildren. They go “eye shopping” at the Echelon Mall. They walk to an aquatic aerobics class at Bally’s Fitness Center. And each makes sure the other takes her daily medication.

“If she was not here, I could not live here,” Noh said, smiling at Oh.

Their friendship is a survival strategy that has echoes in apartment complexes across the country, UCLA’s Moon said.

She surveyed hundreds of elderly Koreans in complexes in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Many had lived with their children in suburbs – saddled with baby-sitting and housework – until they became eligible for government benefits.

That economic pull is sometimes accompanied by a push as the traditional notion of filial piety, or honor and respect for elders, gets lost in the cauldron of American assimilation.

“Their grandchildren don’t talk to them,” said Young Sim, founder of the Korean American Service Center of New Jersey and counselor to many disaffected seniors. “Whenever they see them, they just shut the door. They say, ‘Don’t open my letter. Don’t listen [to] my calls.’ ”

“American kids are different,” she said. “They are very independent.”

A survey by the New World Association found that many Russian and Ukrainian seniors were bewildered by new roles in their transplanted families.

“An opinion of older members [in the family] used to have great importance,” one participant said. “Our relationships have changed since moving here. There are often wide gaps in understanding and appreciating elders.”

Not everyone lives alone to escape such tensions. Some do so partly out of pride, seizing an opportunity that was not available in their homeland.

“In Russia? What was in Russia?” asked Pustelnik, a former teacher who is close to her daughter. “It was a big problem to get an apartment . . . . After the war, Russia was ruined. The buildings, they were not enough.”

Those housing shortages made an apartment of one’s own a status symbol.

“People live separately because they want to, not because they have to,” said Rose Goldenberg, 81, a Russian immigrant who lives in Longwood Manor in the Northeast. “It’s a miracle from God. You are the owner of your life. You do what you want and when you want.”

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