Nine wary residents gathered around a table in the basement of Boston’s Kenmore Abbey Apartments to broach a subject most people tend to avoid: death.
The residents – all Chinese-born men and women between 64 and 85 years old — sipped hot green tea. They listened poker-faced as a facilitator, Shiyun “Cici” Guan of the nonprofit Boston Senior Home Care, spoke in Cantonese about the need to designate a family member as a proxy to make health care decisions for them in the event of emergency or serious illness.
At first, the room was so quiet you could hear the air conditioner hum.
“I want everyone around me to be happy,” said Lye Ling Ng, 85, “not to cry.”
“Money and everything else is not so important,” said 80-year-old Linda Cheung. “It’s more important to get everything accomplished before I die.” (The residents spoke in Cantonese. Their words were translated by Po Yuen, a Boston Senior Home Care employee.)
Because death is considered a taboo subject in Chinese culture — the numbers 4 and 14, which sound similar to the word for death, are omitted from floor schemes in Chinese buildings – many immigrants resist discussing it, for fear of bringing bad luck. Their American-born children often shy away from asking about their end-of-life wishes, such as if they would prefer to die at home or whether they would want to be kept on life support if they are incapacitated.
The reluctance to pose such questions stems in part from the Confucian concept of “filial piety,” the importance of respecting, obeying, and caring for parents, said Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation in Boston, a community activist who isn’t involved in the Heart to Heart program.