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Study to examine gambling among elderly Asian immigrants

Residents of Yau Ma Tei play mahjong in the Shanghai Street / Dundass Street Sitting-out Area in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Researcher Wooksoo Kim says Asian immigrant elders seem to be especially vulnerable to gambling because many Asian cultures accept gambling as an entertainment activity. Photo: Michael Elleray

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published September 6, 2013

“Is there a threshold where the benefit of gambling ends and the adversarial effect starts?”
Wooksoo Kim, associate professor
School of Social Work

A School of Social Work professor will take a methodical and multidimensional look into the growing incidence of gambling among Asian immigrant elders, hoping to find ways to enhance positive social effects while designing ways to prevent problems for those who cannot control their compulsion.

The study, supervised by Wooksoo Kim, associate professor of social work, targets a rapidly growing Asian immigrant elder population in America, which has almost doubled in the past 15 years.

The United States was home to more than 1 million older Asians in 2008, and the number is expected to grow to nearly 7.5 million by 2050.  

“Even though gambling may have some positive effects in the lives of older adults by providing socialization opportunities and relieving boredom, it also increases the incidence of problem gambling,” says Kim. “It can significantly reduce the quality of life in the late adulthood of Asian immigrants.”

The research was funded by the Fahs-Beck Foundation; data collection will start this fall.

Kim will use a mixed-methods design and interview 40 Chinese and Korean men and women from the New York City area who have experience with gambling. 

“My research has been focused on debunking the model minority myth,” says Kim. “This  model minority myth, which assumes that Asians are doing well and are even immune to many behavioral problems, actually hurts Asian Americans, especially those who do not fare well in this country. Asians are not immune to behavioral problems, including gambling.”

The study has three goals:

  • Provide a deeper understanding of gambling experiences and in particular problem gambling
  • Design an intervention program that fits the needs of these Asian elders
  • And, eventually, develop a research proposal that tests the effectiveness of this intervention program.

The study targets these Asian elders because of what Kim calls “a triple-minority status” of being old, an ethnic minority and an immigrant.

“Asian immigrant elders seem to be especially vulnerable to gambling,” says Kim. “Many Asian cultures accept gambling as an entertainment activity and gambling, particularly gambling with friends or family, is considered a normal activity that facilitates social life and bonds relationships.”

The study proposal acknowledges the positive effects of gambling in this population. Besides socializing opportunities and relieving boredom, it also can provide social support and a sense of community for transplanted immigrants separated from culture and families that provided continuity and identity.

“Moreover, like other older adults in the U.S., gambling may be attractive to Asian immigrant elders because it provides a means of social integration for a socially and linguistically isolated group,” Kim says.

The research proposal also recognizes the harm excessive gambling can have on these vulnerable people, especially what Kim describes as “a gambling-permissive Asian culture.”

“Because of the sedentary nature of gambling activities, heavy engagement of gambling activities may reduce the likelihood of getting proper physical exercise,” Kim writes in her proposal. “Further, certain types of gambling are associated with poor health, such as bingo, which is more often played by older women. Gambling is also associated with alcohol use in older adulthood. Older adults who gamble are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to drink alcohol than those who do not gamble.”

Kim has engaged two agencies to be involved in the study: the senior service of Hamilton-Madison House in New York City’s Chinatown and the Korean Community Services. The research will consist of in-depth interviews and a survey questionnaire.

“I do not want to pathologize all the gambling behaviors,” says Kim. “For some people, gambling venues provide socializing opportunities. Is gambling good or bad for Asian immigrant elders? Is there certain gambling that is beneficial to them while others are detrimental? Or, is there a threshold where the benefit of gambling ends and the adversarial effect starts?

“If we can identify that threshold, we will be able to recognize those who need help and even prevent potential problems.”