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Im Ja P. Choi

Penn Asian Senior Services
Purpose Prize Fellow 2012

Choi strives to provide dignified care for elderly Asians by matching them with home health aides who speak their language and understand their culture.

Im Ja P. Choi at times felt helpless as her 85-year-old mother lay in a Philadelphia hospital bed recovering from three surgeries for stomach cancer. She watched in frustration as the nurses tried to communicate with her Korean mother in English. “They said, ‘roll over.’ She didn’t understand ‘roll over,’ so the nurses had to push her,” Choi recalls of that 2002 hospital stay.

When Choi’s mother was released, she weighed only 62 pounds, had a colostomy bag and needed professional care. Choi couldn’t imagine placing her mother in a nursing home where no one spoke her language or shared her customs. A home health aide was the solution.

But not a single agency in the Philadelphia area employed Korean-speaking aides. It took Choi seven months to find someone.

With that grueling experience in mind, Choi was inspired to create Penn Asian Senior Services (PASSi), the first and largest agency in Pennsylvania to provide Asian seniors with home health care aides who speak their language and understand their culture. PASSi serves 303 seniors and disabled adults in nine Asian languages. It also operates a home health aide training and employment institute for recent immigrants. PASSi is among the largest Asian employers in southeast Pennsylvania, with more than 280 home health aides.

“It’s really difficult being a senior and sick, especially if no one is able to understand you,” Choi says of her motivation to create the agency. “It’s such a pitiful situation.”