Report Challenges Negative Image of Immigrant Elders



Editor’s Note: Six million older immigrants live in the United States, a figure projected to triple by 2030. Advocates for these elders have set out to bring their voices –- and new respect for them as community contributors –- to the public and agency decision makers, who often dismiss them as mere clients seeking benefits.

If treated as partners, rather than mere users of public services, immigrant elders can help cash-strapped agencies solve problems in their communities, according to a new report.

The report by Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning in Philadelphia found that although older immigrants and refugees in the United States are often treated merely as seekers of services, they are more effective than government agencies in communicating with members of their communities.

The center’s Project Shine staff interviewed nearly 100 older immigrants from Latino, Chinese, Liberian, Vietnamese, Somali and Ethiopian communities in English or their native languages, and is now using the study findings to persuade decision makers to change their approach. Advocates seek to convince health and service decision makers -– who are often the first ones older immigrants encounter in the American system -– that they need to start seeing them as community leaders who can help them.

“This is a wake-up call to the public and the service community,” said Nancy Henkin, the center’s director. “These are survivors with skills and experiences that make them leaders in their communities.”

One elder interviewed for the report, for example, is a 78-year-old immigrant named Samuel Troko, who has been very active in the Liberian community in Philadelphia. Troko, who fled Liberia’s civil war in 2003, became committed to teaching the Dan language, a minority dialect banned by the repressive regime of Charles Taylor. He helped organize classes in Dan, Bassa and other dialects, as well as “good English,” for his grandchildren and other Liberian youth.

“This time, we will absolutely teach our own children our own dialects,” said Troko.

The retired carpenter and missionary, who quickly became a take-charge leader in the City of Brotherly Love, is one of 6 million immigrants aged 55 and older in the United States today -– a figure projected by the U.S. Census Bureau to more than triple by 2030.

Despite their rapidly increasing population, older immigrants are not often included in the process of making decisions that affect their lives and those of their communities. But advocates at the center’s Project Shine and other organizations in aging aim to change that.

In March, the Project Shine staff made its first national presentation of its report, Community Treasures: Recognizing the Contributions of Older Immigrants and Refugees, at the “Aging in America” conference in Las Vegas. The event kicked off the project’s series of workshops now underway to reverse the “invisible” image of seniors from abroad.

Another key conclusion of the study is that immigrant elders often struggle to cope in a climate that is “wary, unwelcoming or even hostile toward immigrants.”

Steven A. Wallace of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a respected expert on minority elders said older immigrants, in particular, have been wrongly stigmatized as coming to the United States with little to give, while taking much from the welfare system.

But as the Temple report shows “the vitality of immigrant communities, and how even older immigrants, who are no longer working for wages, often continue to contribute,” Wallace said.

One story the center’s educational effort is bringing to agency professionals across the United States is that of Gloria Rivera. Rivera, 59, emigrated to Philadelphia many years ago from Puerto Rico. She wanted to volunteer at her granddaughter’s elementary school, but found resistance to her help from the school’s staff and teachers. With the help of the school’s Latina principal, Rivera persisted, overcoming personnel and bureaucratic barriers -– obstacles she said can deter non-native English speakers like her from contributing their time and energy.

Eventually, Rivera won the staff over with her warmth and ability to comfort immigrant children, who were often scared and struggling with their new language.

“I tried to understand their problems,” she told researchers.

The report also points to effective programs, such as Boat People SOS, in Falls Church, Va. The organization trains Vietnamese elders to assist victims of torture or related psychological trauma. The program’s older Peer Companions learn active listening techniques enabling them to “uncover their clients’ skills and interests, provide encouragement and serve as health care navigators.”

In the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, Ga. – where more than a third of the residents are foreign-born – Hassan Bulle, who is in his 70s, described how he and other Ethiopian elders raised funds to build mosques and other gathering places where older Ethiopians come together to socialize and confer on community concerns.

Many agencies miss older immigrants’ capabilities because they focus only on those who sign up for formal volunteer activities. In Spanish, for instance, there is no exact word for “volunteering,” according to Jose Perez, who founded the nonprofit Senior Community Outreach Services in Alamo, Texas. Henkin and her staff describe how he persuaded older Mexicans to assist their frail neighbors by saying, “There are old people who really need your help,” rather than, “Can you volunteer?”

Other ethnic elders get quietly involved because of cultural or religious traditions, or due to past political repression. One Muslim community leader from East Africa told the researchers, “The religious way is that you give away; you don’t want to show [it].”

A Vietnamese refugee, who had been held prisoner by the Communist regime after the war, echoed the reluctance of elders from different strife-ridden nations to become involved with formal civic programs. He explained, “Other detainees, when they were released, the local police didn’t allow them to participate in community activities.”

Some elders in the Project Shine study, though, have taken public action in the past. In 2006, one Chinese community elder led a group to the U.S. Capitol to address issues around Medicare and Medicaid. He told the researchers the elders “wouldn’t probably have come if it was just announced in general because I personally asked them . . . . They have to know you, and you have to really know them and be trusted.”

Project Shine is part of a growing recognition shared by such groups as AARP and the American Society on Aging that communities need to enlist the help of immigrant elders, especially when public resources are shrinking and service waiting lists are lengthening. The Community Treasures report was funded by the Metlife Foundation and is available free online at Project Shine.