Help Line Seeks To Link Koreans With Services

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

Korean speakers in search of information about Fairfax County services for seniors will soon have their own telephone help line.

Tomorrow, the county is launching a phone service for monolingual Korean seniors and their families, who will be able to record a message that will be responded to the same day by a Korean-speaking volunteer. The volunteer will connect the caller with appropriate programs for the elderly, county officials said.

As Fairfax's large Korean population continues to grow, so does its number of elderly Koreans -- many of whom are culturally and linguistically isolated. County officials noticed that those seniors rarely come to the county with questions about health care, housing or senior centers, said Sharon Lynn, assistant director of the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging.

"We know that they're not utilizing the services to the extent that they probably need them," Lynn said. "We want to improve access, and we think this is a way to do it."

The county developed the program this year with SeniorNavigator, a nonprofit group with a statewide database of information for the elderly, and the Korean Central Senior Center in Vienna.

Heisung Lee, executive director of the senior center, said she hears stories every day from elderly Koreans who speak little English and are unsure where -- or how -- to seek information about public transportation, Medicare, housing assistance or citizenship classes.

"They have to rely on their children and ask them to go to the Internet to find information," Lee said.

The Korean help line, which is 703-324-5420, is the first in a pilot program. If successful, the county might expand it to include similar services in other languages, such as Spanish, Lynn said.

The phone line adds to the growing services available for Korean seniors in Fairfax, where Koreans are the largest immigrant group. According to census data released last month, more than 26,000 people living in Fairfax last year were born in Korea, making up nearly 10 percent of the county's foreign-born population. That number rose from 22,890 in 2000.

Two years ago, the Korean Central Senior Center, a nonprofit run out of Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Vienna, teamed up with Fairfax and other public and private organizations to launch a training program for Korean-speaking home-care aides. More than 120 trainees have completed the program, Lee said.

The county's Meals on Wheels program also delivers kimchi, fish cakes and other Korean specialties to the homes of 21 elderly Koreans. More than 400 Koreans attend the senior center's twice-a-week day programs, which include classes in English, table tennis, flower arrangement and art.

The demand for services "is growing all the time," Lee said.

So far, eight volunteers -- linked to the program through Korean community organizations -- have been trained by the county to operate the phone line. Working from home, they will respond to messages and refer the callers to Fairfax programs. If necessary, they will research options on http://seniornavigator.org/ or ask a social worker to phone the caller, she said.

"Our hope is also that the volunteers will link the Korean seniors directly to the program that they need," Lynn said.

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