HISPANIC ELDERLY

Although Hispanic Americans share a common language, they come from quite varied cultural backgrounds. The label Hispanic American includes many subgroups, such as
 

     Mexican-Americans
     Puerto Ricans
     Cubans
     Latin Americans

Each group has its own unique history and relationship with this country. As a result, there is often great diversity between subgroups when it comes to values and expectations. A full understanding of Hispanic aging requires specific knowledge about each subgroup (refer to References). While diversity is self-evident in the literature on Hispanic culture, combined, this knowledge also reveals certain similarities among subgroups of Hispanic elderly that can inform us about their status and needs.

CURRENT STATUS:  Hispanics represent the nation's fastest growing minority and ethnic population. They also represent the fastest growing aging population in the country (Torres-Gil, 1990). The Hispanic population can be seen to face a number of problems and concerns as they get older, primarily with regard to maintaining adequate income, housing, and physical/mental health.
 

    Having confronted educational and employment barriers throughout their younger years, many Hispanics have been unable to accumulate sufficient wealth to sustain them in their later years. Hispanic Americans are also more likely to be unemployed than black American and white elderly. As a consequence, elderly Hispanics, especially those 75 and over, are found to experience high rates of poverty. Hispanic Elderly are also less likely to receive Social Security benefits (Maldonado, 1990). Those that do receive this supplemental income are more likely to be dependent on it, as a lifetime of hard work in skilled labor positions, with deficient or non-existent retirement programs, have left many unprepared to sustain themselves independently.
 
    Regarding housing, as compared to white and black elderly, more Hispanic elderly are found living within communities, rather than in nursing homes or other institutional settings (Lopez, 1991). Living in neighborhoods, or "barrios," is familiar and can provide a sense of security for the elderly. However, because these neighborhoods tend to be in densely populated and often economically depressed metropolitan areas, they are also likely to experience high crime rates, potentially putting Hispanic elderly at risk for being preyed upon by others. Location of neighborhoods, in relation to surrounding services such as the Social Security office, medical and mental health clinics, also poses a problem for the elderly. Language barriers can make access to transportation and services an additional problem for Hispanic elderly.
 
    These problems may be somewhat offset by the role of extended family in Hispanic culture. Traditional families tend to be large and multi-generational. This means that elderly family members tend not to live alone but with their children, and often their grandchildren and other family. This living situation can provide much needed financial and emotional support for the Hispanic elder. In turn, living with family gives the elder social contact and an opportunity to serve certain functions important in the Hispanic family system-such as passing down the family history and serving as a role model for younger family members (Becura & Shaw, cited in Torres-Gil, 1990).

    Traditional family values and structure are a particular strength in Hispanic culture in many ways which can help their elders. However, as Hispanic family values are becoming increasingly vulnerable to acculturation we find a shift away from multigenerational living emerging. This shift is beginning to create an increased need for housing in metropolitan areas, as Hispanic elderly continue to prefer to remain in familiar neighborhoods, preferably close to family.

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:Physical health is a major concern for Hispanic elderly. In fact, it is generally ranked as the most serious concern and fear that Hispanic elderly face (Torres-Gil, 1990). Of those who are now in their 60s and 70s, many began work at a very early age. As primarily skilled workers (e.g., farm work, manufacturing), this work often involved hard physical labor that left them vulnerable to a number of illnesses and disabilities (Yzaguirre, 1991). In fact, of all groups, age 65 and over, a greater number of Hispanics report at least one chronic illness and some limitations in daily functioning. Hypertension is a particular problem in Hispanic populations. High rates of cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and high cholesterol are also found among the Hispanic elderly (American Association of Retired Persons, 1990). Functional status has, in turn, been linked with mental health status. For example, Hispanic elders experiencing greater activity limitations tend to report higher rates of mood disorders, like depression. Axelson (1985) also reports on studies revealing that, among equivalent age groups of blacks, whites, Mexican and Asian Americans,
 

    Mexican Americans tend to see themselves as "old" much earlier in life than other groups (at about 60 years of age, as compared to 65 and 70 for black and white Americans, respectively). Mexican Americans were also found to expect fewer remaining years of life than any of the other groups. These kinds of attitudes and expectations may put the Hispanic elderly at increased risk for what has been referred to as "psychological" death (Axelson, 1985), meaning "giving up" or resigning from active involvement in life. For Hispanic elderly, living in isolated, metropolitan areas, experiencing language and transportation barriers, and functional limitations, and who have limited contact with extended family due to their acculturation into the mainstream, the risk of feeling useless and unmotivated (psychological death) is great.
 
 While family support is generally considered a strength for Hispanic elders, it can also prove to be a source of conflict for the elder. Hispanic family structure is traditionally hierarchical in nature, with elder members, at the top, generally receiving great respect. However, emotional over-involvement, feeling pressured to keep the family together, and divided loyalties among family members can create added stress for the elder.

HEALTH CARE SERVICES: For the most part, Hispanic elders do not seek outside help until advice is obtained from extended family and close friends (Axelson, 1985.) When they do reach out, they tend to seek public, versus private, sources of physical and mental health care. Yet these services, especially preventive services (e.g., immunizations, social and mental health services), are underutilized by Hispanic elderly. Several reasons have been suggested (Krause & Wray, 1992; Maldonado, 1990; Lopez, 1991):
 

    LACK OF INSURANCE AND OTHER FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS: 
 
    Regarding mental health, assessment of level of acculturation and degree of conflict with mainstream values, culture, and technology is critical in designing interventions. Generally, the more traditional the elder, the more likely concrete, structured, and goal-oriented approaches will work better. Family involvement may not only be indicated, but required, due to a need for ongoing family support of the elder. Discussion of any intervention should also include consideration of the consequences of change (regarding the impact to self, family, and perhaps community). For the traditional Hispanic elder, change may be perceived as threatening, especially if introduced by a person outside the realm of trusted family and friends. It is always advised that problem identification, appraisal, and solution be approached from the Hispanic elder's point of view, rather than "imposed" by another.
 
    Because Hispanic elders tend not to venture far from home and community, the development of effective home care service systems, providing nursing care assistance, home helper activities, and mental health interventions has been suggested (Miranda, 1990). Critical to supporting any new or existing caregiver system, within home or community, is getting adequate bilingual information to those in need, including information about how to refer to formal service networks, how to get transportation and financial assistance, as well as information regarding respite (relief) for caregivers. In addition, mainstream social service agencies could be encouraged to develop more outreach programs for elder Hispanics, and stronger ties with existing community-based services. For anyone involved with Hispanic elderly, learning the language or having access to bilingual assistance, will greatly improve communications and effectiveness of any intervention.

REFERENCES:

     American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). (1990). A Portrait of Older Minorities [brochure]. Washington, DC: Author.

     Axelson, J.A. (1985). Counseling and Development in a Multicultural Society. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

     Krause, N. & Wray, L.A. (1992). Psychosocial correlates of health and illness among minority elders. In E.P. Stanford and F.M. Torres-Gil, (Eds.). 1992. Diversity: New Approaches to Ethnic Minority Aging (pp.41-52). Amityville, NY: Baywood.

     Lopez, C., & Aguilera, E. (1991). On the sidelines: Hispanic elderly and the continuum of care. Washington, DC: Policy Analysis Center and Office of Institutional Development, National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

     Maldonado, D. (1990). The Hispanic elderly: Vulnerability in old age. In American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Aging and old age in diverse populations: Research papers presented at minority affairs initiative empowerment conferences (pp.165-176). Washington, DC: AARP.

     Miranda, M.R. (1990). Hispanic aging: An overview of issues and policy implications. In American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Aging and old age in diverse populations: Research papers presented at minority affairs initiative empowerment conferences (pp.177-189). Washington, DC: AARP.

     Torres-Gil, F.M. (1990). Aging in Hispanic America. In American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Aging and old age in diverse populations: Research papers presented at minority affairs initiative empowerment conferences (pp. 147-164). Washington, DC: AARP.

     Yzaguirre, R. (1991). Becoming involved in the Aging Network: A Planning and Resource Guide for Hispanic Community-based Organizations. Washington, DC: Policy Analysis Center and Office of Insitutionalized Development, National Council of La Raza (NCLR).


RESOURCES:

National Council of La Raza Headquarters
810 First St., N.E., Suite 300
Washington, DC 20002
Telephone: (202)-289-1380


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