Every month, a group of about 60 Korean-American seniors gather at the Lynnwood-based Verdant Wellness Center. Arms stretched toward the ceiling, seniors participate in a half hour of chair yoga, followed by an hour-long discussion on topics ranging from health and wellness to state politics to civic engagement, finishing with a catered lunch.
“It helps you to stay healthy and active,” declared 87-year-old Byung Joon Lee through a translator. Lee serves as the president of the Snohomish Korean Senior Association, whose members not only participate in the monthly yoga and seminar session but also meet twice a week for field trips and other social events.
“There is that camaraderie and they can look out for each other,” explained Lee’s translator Suzanne Pak, who serves as director of community and behavioral health for the Lynnwood-based office of the Korean Women’s Association (KWA).
KWA, which receives funding from the Verdant Health Commission to sponsor the monthly Everyday Prevention programs, also works directly with Lee’s organization to support Snohomish Korean Senior Association activities. The goal is simple: to engage seniors in “an ongoing dialogue of how to improve their lives,” Pak said.
At the group’s September meeting, enthusiastic participants arrived early to get a seat, then followed the graceful movements and verbal instructions of yoga instructor Lida Kim. They then settled in to hear a presentation.
“Each month we have a different topic that we go over,” Pak explained. “We had a whole series on different types of cancers — colon as well as stomach cancers that affect Asian populations. The Puget Sound Kidney Dialysis Center came and did a series on kidney dialysis prevention. ”
And information presented isn’t limited to health topics. Last month, Washington State Rep. Cindy Ryu (D-32nd District) made a presentation on the state budget. The month before that, Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith spoke about Lynnwood’s changing demographics.
“Next month, we’re inviting Waste Management to teach seniors about recycling,” Pak said.
“These seniors, they are so connected,” Pak added. “Often times, they’ll take the information that we share with them and they’ll tell their adult children.”
Now three years old, the Everyday Prevention program has become “really beloved” in the community,” Pak said. “We’ve gotten a lot of invitations from local churches in the Snohomish County area and they’ve asked us come in and do yoga sessions or different types of content that they’ve heard about.”
It’s just one of many initiatives sponsored by the non-profit Korean Women’s Association, which was founded in 1972 as a social club for Korean women married to American servicemen at the Fort Lewis Army base and McChord Air Force Base.
A variety of support programs were developed over time, as the group saw a need. “They would see challenges with domestic violence so they advocated for a domestic violence shelter,” Pak said. “They would see challenges with their own parents becoming elderly and they needed someone to help them with health care needs.” KWA now operates a in-home care business that is one of the largest in Washington state. The organization also provides affordable housing, so far just in Pierce and King counties. And it now serves both men and women, as well as families, in addition to senior citizens.
“A lot of it has been this organic growth driven by the board members and staff who are just very connected to our communities,” Pak said.
Sixteen years ago, KWA began expanding “both geographically and ethnically,” and is now in 11 counties in Washington state. Lynnwood is KWA’s third largest office, behind Tacoma and Federal Way. In addition to serving the Korean community, KWA provides services to those with a range of ethnic backgrounds, including Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Latino clients.
In the past, the organization was focused on social services, “helping people enroll in health care benefits, food stamp benefits, those are very important things,” Pak said. But partnering with Verdant gave KWA an opportunity to launch the interactive Everyday Prevention program.
“Our goal is to expand our Everyday Prevention programs to younger generations but starting with this [senior] generation,” Pak said.
“All seniors — not just Korean seniors — as you get older and have more time, there is this desire to get connected,” Pak said. “They almost self-organize. They come up with types of things that they want to hear about and we really love that.”
Byung Joon Lee of the Snohomish Korean Senior Association said the monthly gatherings provide seniors with an opportunity to socialize. “They can talk to each other,” he said. “If those seniors were lonely, they don’t feel lonely any more.”
Another priority for KWA, Pak said, is to ensure that its social services are integrated with the health care system, so clients get the care they need. This includes help with substance abuse and mental health — issues that many cultures avoid discussing.
“I think all immigrants suffer from having a lot of alcohol and tobacco use in their native countries so they have started using it and now they find it difficult to quit,” Pak said. Also, much of the advertising related to alcohol or tobacco use prevention isn’t culturally responsive and as a result, immigrants “may see all these advertisements in the U.S. and think it’s not for them,” she explained.
“Alcohol, tobacco, depression, anxiety — those are serious issues in all immigrant communities and it’s very difficult for them to identify with mainstream organizations,” Pak added.
“Our goal is to really say, ‘These things are affecting you just like everyone else,’ and get them to start to think about it,” she said.
To help with this effort, the Korean Women’s Association partners with South Snohomish County physicians, including “mom and pop Korean doctors,” Pak said. “We introduce them to concepts like, how do you do mental health and substance abuse screening. These are broader issues than just getting a physical checkup.”
Such an approach is appreciated by physicians because they often struggle with cultural barriers, Pak said. “They don’t know, ‘Does this client have such a strong stigma about mental health that we can’t even bring up this topic. So having things like uniform screening has really allowed them to kind of broach that topic and to start to say, ‘Being well physically also means being well emotionally, mentally,’ and there are a whole slew of resources in the United States to help them with this.
One of the most heartwarming aspects of involving Korean-American seniors in the Everyday Prevention program at Verdant, Pak said, is how it has connected those seniors to the community.
“This is the first time they’ve felt invited by an American institution to say come, come use our space, you are welcome here,” Pak said. “Before that, they didn’t really feel like they were part of the community, and now they are like, ‘Wow this wonderful building is as much ours as everyone else’s and it’s been a wonderful thing — they love it.”
The Korean American Women’s Association is celebrating its 45th anniversary with a dinner fundraiser Saturday, Oct. 14 at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center. Featured speakers for the event, which starts at 6 p.m., include Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. For more information, visit the website at https://www.kwacares.org/kwa45/.
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel