Merced groups seek grant to fight elder abuse in Southeast Asian communities

Elder abuse is not something people discuss much in Southeast Asian communities, but local organizations believe it’s an issue worth learning more about.

Merced’s Healthy House, along with the Valley Crisis Center, the Merced Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office have teamed up to apply for a federal grant that would allow for further education on this issue.

Candice Adam-Medefind, executive director of Healthy House, explained that through the nonprofit’s work, staff have become aware of the prominence of late-in-life abuse in the Hmong community.

This type of abuse includes domestic violence, sexual assault, exploitation and neglect.

Elder abuse, and abuse in general, Adam-Medefind said, tends to be a taboo subject in populations that put a great value on family. She’s learned victims would rather endure abuse than bring shame to their families, she said.

Paula Yang, marketing and program coordinator at Healthy House, said older Hmong people tend to become isolated when their children merge into Western culture and then abandon many values of the Hmong culture.

Yang, a founder of the Hmong Sisterhood of Fresno, is well-known in the Hmong community for her more than 15 years of advocacy work. Through her work, she has discovered that this sense of separation is especially true for widows, who all their lives had depended heavily on their husbands.

Solitude and neglect often times lead to depression, she said.

“(Once alone) they become crippled in a way because they have no means of transportation, no education and no communication, so this puts them in deeper isolation,” Yang said.

In a vulnerable state, Yang added, these older women many times become the victims of younger men who exploit them financially and sexually.

And senior centers are not always an option because older Hmongs don’t necessarily feel like they would fit in, she explained.

Being Hmong herself, Yang knows that more traditional women will only open up to people they can identify with – mainly other Hmong women. For example, it is not rare for older women to open up to her about their suffering of having lived as a second or third wife. Even decades later, women still deal with that trauma, Yang said.

For this reason, she believes it is important that local organizations become educated on how to approach this specific group.

The $350,000 grant, if received, will span a three-year period. It will include a planning state, in which the participating agencies will receive in-depth training and collaboratively develop a community response and offer improved services.

Adam-Medefind said the Merced Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office came on board because they, too, expressed concern on having a hard time making inroads with this segment of the population.

Increasing cultural sensitivity and understanding is key to better aiding this community, Adam-Medefind and Yang said.

Yang said she believes this is the ideal time to tackle elder abuse in Merced’s Hmong community, especially when there are also so many successful Hmong professionals who can serve as examples of empowerment.

Meghan Kehoe, director of the Valley Crisis Center, said that seniors, 65 years or older, are victimized in about 5 percent of domestic abuse cases they hear about at the center. But she believes a greater percentage of cases go unreported because of the barriers elders face. These barriers can include transportation, communication, education and language.

“Talking about domestic violence is not easy, especially for that demographic,” Kehoe said.

Research shows, she added, that abuse creates chronic stress, which can cause emotional, mental and physical health problems such as cardiac disease and depression, even more so in older victims.

Healthy House and its partners will know by September if they’ve been awarded the grant.

Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or aibarra@mercedsunstar.com.