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Hmong American Center awarded grant to combat social isolation in Southeast Asian elders

Social isolation among Asian Americans is a big issue, but the Hmong American Center in Wausau wants to change that.

They were awarded a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to help improve the mental health of elders in the Southeast Asian community.

For elders in Asian American communities, social isolation is a huge problem.

There’s often a language barrier that makes it difficult for them to go out and socialize independently.

A 2022 study confirmed these reported experiences when it found that older individuals and people who had limited English proficiency were more likely to be isolated.

The Hmong American Center in Wausau is a hub for both Hmong and Southeast Asian communities in northern Wisconsin.

12% of Wausau’s residents are Hmong,making it the highest per-capita Hmong population in the state and country.

In 2020, they started a program to help elders explore the area and make friends.

Last month, they were awarded a $90,000 APRA HCBS Social Isolation and Loneliness grant from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

This is Bee Lor, the organization’s Project Resilience Coordinator.

“Especially through the pandemic, a lot of them really was just isolated in their homes, afraid to go outdoors. And then obviously, they just kind of made that a norm after the pandemic,” explained Lor.

Through the new program, they’ve gone on outings to zoos and museums, the botanical garden, and more.

“We know that mental health has been around for ages, but then to our elders in the Southeast Asian communities, it's new to them because they don't understand what it is, or they don't know how to address their own mental health needs. So because of this, it trickles down to their kids,” said Lor.

They want to interrupt that cycle and instead bring people together in community.

By exposing elders to new places they can visit, the center hopes to empower them to explore.

Lor says that elders feel more empowered to visit new places in the community when they’re with a group of people they already know.

“Even in the little bit more North areas, as far as Merrill as well, we know that we might not have a large community of Southeast Asians there. But even if just a handful of them could also be impacted by joining our programs under this grant, so, then they are able to be a part of a community as a whole,” she said.

Once connected regularly with the center, Lor says that elders start to share their concerns and needs, whether it be issues paying their bills or getting enough food.

“We also are able to assist with now, when they come to our programs, they do express to our staff that, ‘oh, I need help, you know, with housing,’ or, ‘I don't have enough money for food,’ or, ‘I'm unable to pay my bills,’ and stuff like that. So then we are also able to address other needs,” explained Lor.

Then, advocates can address and cover those problems, ensuring that no one falls through the cracks.

Lor encourages more Southeast Asian elders to consider joining, even if they’ve never been to the center.

Hannah Davis-Reid is a WXPR Reporter.
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