When 76-year-old Malaysian grandmother Betty Chan moved to New Zealand 10 years ago, she struggled to understand the Kiwi accent and found it difficult to make friends.

"I consider myself to be an English speaker, but I had trouble to even understand my son-in-law who is a local-born Chinese," said Chan, originally from Petaling Jaya in Malaysia.

During her first years in Auckland, she found comfort with other Malaysians she met through her daughter.

She also took part in locally organised Malaysian campaigns, such as the Bersih rally seeking electoral reforms in Malaysia.


Chan, a former teacher, wanted to get more involved in migrant communities and soon started volunteering at the Northcote library teaching migrants to read. For the past five years, she has also been a regular volunteer at the Northcote Baptist Op Shop.

Malaysian migrant Betty Chan, 76, volunteers at the Northcote Baptist Op Shop. Photo / Nick Reed.
Malaysian migrant Betty Chan, 76, volunteers at the Northcote Baptist Op Shop. Photo / Nick Reed.

"I do this because it gives me a sense of purpose, and it keeps me occupied," Chan said.

"One of the main reasons I volunteer is also because it helps me make new friends."

An AUT University study found ethnic enclaves and volunteering were "pivotal" for the wellbeing of late-life recent Asian migrants.

Mainstream community, health and social services are not the vehicle of choice for these elder Asian migrants to achieve health gains, it found.

The report "Late-life Asian immigrants managing wellness through contributing to socially embedded networks" is calling for more resourcing to enable migrants to help one another.

The research by Associate Professor Valerie Wright-St Clair found recently arrived older migrants were more likely than younger or long-term migrants to be socially isolated.

"Ethnic enclaves are a pivotal part of promoting wellness. This is counter to popular discourse that they are detrimental, and migrants should be integrated into the general community," Wright St-Clair said.

"Rather than expect late-life immigrants from disparate communities to engage with mainstream health services ... we should be looking at how to resource them to do more of what they're already doing - promoting health by enabling them to help one another."

Researchers interviewed 76 Chinese, Indian and Korean migrants aged between 60 and 83 who migrated here less than 20 years ago for the report.

Wright St-Clair said a strong dedication to wellness came through resoundingly in the study.

"There is this perception that older migrants are a burden to society - that they don't integrate as well as others might expect," Wright St-Clair said.

"Ethnic enclaves, where people tend to keep to themselves ... are often viewed negatively as if they hold migrants back somehow.

"What we found is that, for older Asian migrants, these socially embedded networks are a vehicle for bringing health and wellbeing to others, as well as themselves, through volunteering."

When they first moved to New Zealand, most participants started in ethnic enclaves. But they all had an aspiration to do this for the wider community.

"Some groups were teaching Tai Chi or singing for people in rest homes," Wright St-Clair said.

"There was a real sense that if you can contribute to the happiness and wellbeing of others, you gain something for yourself."

She said the results of the study supported the recommendation for publicly resourcing older migrants' informal networks to "enable older migrants collectively to provide for themselves".