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Caregiving runs deep in Asian American and Pacific Islander homes

Taking care of family members is a deeply ingrained facet of AAPI families. But there are consequences for a caregiver's mental, physical and emotional health.

Caregiving runs deep in Asian American and Pacific Islander homes

Every November, during National Family Caregivers Month, we honor and give voice to the essential work of caregivers — including the millions of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) mothers who care for their own children, elderly parents and extended family members all under one roof.

The AAPI community is more likely than any other group to live in a multigenerational home. I spent part of my childhood living with my grandparents as part of an extended community built around mutual care and respect. In my adult life, my own parents have also lived with me, along with my husband and young daughter.

Taking care of family members and immigrant relatives is a deeply ingrained facet of AAPI families. But this sense of obligation can too easily cut into precious time and resources, draining a caretaker’s mental, physical and emotional health.

The pandemic has prompted a reality check and reckoning with our reliance on family caregivers, the vast majority of whom are women. In 2017, it was estimated that family caregivers contributed $470 billion of unpaid care, a number that has surely ballooned over the past two years.

Yet without stronger medical and family leave protections, many low-income and working moms of color are forced to leave their jobs or take lower-paying ones to meet the demands of caregiving at home. 

At the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), we see the ways that cultural and legal barriers impact the everyday lives of AAPI caregivers.

When family members or relatives don’t speak English, caregivers must support older adults in successfully navigating complex health and benefits systems or risk delaying care or receiving none at all. In a confusing legal landscape, caregivers in mixed-status households face challenges helping their undocumented relatives access health care. And with the rise of anti-Asian harassment and violence — particularly against AAPI elders — caregivers are forced to step into the world not knowing if their own safety will be threatened.

All the while, most research on caregivers treats AAPI ethnic subgroups — of which there are dozens — as one, inseparable whole. This masks important distinctions between different AAPI communities, their beliefs around family and their caregiving practices.

For instance, Filipino American caregivers might rely more heavily on large extended families for support, while Chinese American caregivers might consider it their responsibility to keep the needs and issues of their relatives private.  Failing to recognize these kinds of cultural distinctions between AAPI communities makes it that much harder to understand the support caregivers need — let alone to provide it.

But we know how to start fixing this problem. By examining caregiving through a cultural lens, we can pursue comprehensive solutions to give AAPI women — and all family caregivers — the support they need.

We must continue encouraging researchers to build studies as diverse as the communities we represent. With more in-depth investigations and disaggregated data, we can tell the real story of the AAPI gender wage gap so that working women aren’t forced to choose between putting food on the table and meeting the needs of those they are feeding at home.

In addition, any efforts to help caregivers must recognize the distinct needs of AAPI households — including the challenges faced by mixed-status families, as well as language barriers that often prevent families from accessing high-quality and reliable health care.

Finally, in support of all caregivers, we must demand lawmakers deliver on long-promised investments in the care economy. Legally mandated leave policies, provisions for paid family leave, and additional funding for childcare will ease the juggling act too many women face at work and at home.

During the holiday season, it can be easier to see the work and sacrifices of family caregivers. Yet we owe them our gratitude and support every day, and every month, of the year. It’s time to give back to them as much as they give us.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow (she/her) is executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), the only multi-issue, progressive, community organizing and policy advocacy organization for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women and girls in the United States. NAPAWF’s mission is to build collective power so that all AAPI women and girls can have full agency over their lives, their families, and their communities.

Sung Yeon is a fierce advocate for worker rights, immigrant rights and affordable health care access including reproductive health care and economic justice, especially at the intersection of these issues and gender justice. She is a respected thought leader providing perspective on the Asian American community through various public conversations on issues of race and gender. Sung Yeon has been featured in numerous outlets including NPR, BBC, THE NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, USA TODAY, CHICAGO SUN TIMES and THE HILL.

Sung Yeon is a first generation immigrant working mom who is passionate about empowering others and creating change so her daughter can live in a more just world than the one she inherited. She is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). You can follow her @schoimorrow.