Ethnic Senior Citizens Lost in America
By Viji Sundaram

Participants in the ‘Diversity and aging in the 21st century’ conference held in Los Angeles from June 19-21

Los Angeles: When a 57-year-old man with a bad knee and no health insurance approached the American Association of Retired People President Dr. Erik Olsen some time ago to ask if there was anything the non-profit could do to help him, Olsen said his first reaction was anger, not because the man had sought his help but because he seemed so “resigned” to his lot.
“It enraged me to see his resignation,” Olsen said at the opening session of the three-day conference here June 19 to 21 on “Diversity and Aging in the 21st Century.” “In any other developed country he could have got his knee attended to. In every European country they have a national health care service.”
The inaccessibility to health care for America’s seniors figured prominently in the discussions at the plenary sessions and workshops at the conference that drew more than 700 attendees from all across the country. A broad range of other issues affecting seniors was also explored, including hardships faced by family caregivers, aging gay men and lesbians and the elderly population in prisons. An impressive roster of panelists shared their expertise and fielded questions from the audience.
It has been projected that by 2030, nearly one in five Americans, or 72 million people, will be over the age of 65. And a good portion of them will be people from ethnic communities.
“We know that for AARP, the diversity agenda is unfinished business,” said Dr. Tom Nelson, AARP’s chief operating officer. “There’s more to be done, and the only way to do it is by learning from each other.”
At every opportunity, AARP officials reminded the audience that the conference’s goal was to start a long overdue dialogue on how seniors could access health care, enjoy financial security and have a choice when it comes to long-term care.
In his welcome address, AARP’s Chief Diversity Officer Percil Stanford noted that the United States was rapidly undergoing a demographic shift, and a one-size-fits-all approach would no longer serve the country when policies for seniors were drawn up – an observation echoed by several other speakers, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of the conference speakers.
“I don’t have to tell you about the importance of diversity,” the mayor said, pointing out that 1.5 million Los Angeles residents, or 46 percent of the city’s population, are foreign-born. “Diversity is built into our DNA and resonates in our neighborhoods. Issues affecting our seniors have no geographical boundaries.”
The need to build a robust social security infrastructure that provides support for family caregivers was driven home at the “Investing in the Future of Aging” plenary session and the “Perspective of Family Caregivers” workshop. Millions of baby boomers find themselves caring for their aging parents, putting a lot of financial and emotional stress on the caregivers, panelists said.
Many elderly people living in nursing homes or by themselves in their homes rely on outside help for care. Many of these caregivers, elderly immigrants often, are willing to provide the service for a modest salary, just to survive.
“So many minority women work as bedpan carriers with no hope of health care,” said Carmela G. Lacayo, president and chief executive officer of the Asociación Nacional Pro Personas Mayores (National Association for Seniors). Lacayo was one of the speakers on the “Investing in the Future of Aging” panel. She lamented the “triple jeopardy” women who are “old, poor and belonging to a minority community” face.
She noted that unless immigrant kids get educated, the cycle of poverty would continue. She said Mayor Villaraigosa “forgot to mention that 53 percent of (Angelenos) are functional illiterates who can’t even read a bus stop sign.”
Traci L. McClellan, executive director of the National Indian Council on Aging, decried how woefully under-funded was the Native American health care system. “We do not have the ability to let our seniors age well,” she said, adding: “Many of our elders are aging with chronic conditions.” Panelist Clayton S. Fong, head of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, pointed out that language barriers prevented many immigrant seniors from accessing programs.
Prisoners’ rights advocates at the conference spotlighted the abject conditions in prison life that don’t spare even the elderly. Of the estimated two million people in US prisons, there are 30,000 elderly people in California’s prisons. And half of the women prisoners in California have been incarcerated for domestic violence issues.
“There are women dying every day behind the walls of our prison and you don’t hear about it,” said Delores Mariano, an Anaheim, Calif.-based prisoners’ rights advocate, who had been imprisoned for 37 months for what she described as “a white collar crime.” “For all those months I spent in prison, I never saw my family.”
On the second day of the conference, AARP's top brass, including the organization’s President-elect Jennie Chin Hansen, sat with 11 ethnic media reporters from New America Media’s countrywide network for a by-invitation-only roundtable discussion to figure out how AARP could reach into ethnic communities and promote their wide range of member services, including discounted health care insurance and homeowner's insurance.
In her introductory remarks, NAM’s Executive Director Sandy Close talked about some of the outstanding stories the ethnic media had done on such topics as growing old in an alien culture. She said she hoped the roundtable discussion would prove mutually beneficial to the media and to AARP.
Hansen noted that AARP was aware that many in the ethnic communities “who are qualified for benefits are the most difficult to reach.”
“We are here to find out how AARP can help you,” assured Gabriela Goddard, editor of AARP’s Spanish-language publications. “We have a big membership (of 37 million nationwide; 3.2 million in California), and we are well connected to all our members.”
For their part, the reporters briefly talked about how their media outlets covered senior issues and what relationship, if any, their communities had with AARP. Nearly all of them said that language barriers prevented those in their communities from finding out what services were available out there for them. Some of the reporters frankly admitted that financial constraints hindered them from covering aging issues.
Sarwat Husain, editor of one of the largest Muslim publications in Texas, Al-Ittihaad “Unity” Monthly, said since 9/11, many Muslims have been feeling “scared” to seek help on health care issues. The hijab-clad woman said, “There is little or no communication between the two million Muslims in the United States and health care givers.”
Abdi Aynte, editor of Hiiraan Online, the largest Somali/English news website in the world, said that his readers needed to be better informed of the services available for them.
“The problems we face are isolation, health care, transportation,” Aynte said, adding, “It’s very important for us to get information from you to guide our senior citizens. Demystifying your information is very important.”
Many of the media representatives said that AARP was not well known in their communities. And those who knew of its existence had misconceptions about it.
“Before I left for this conference, I called 10 elderly people in my community,” said Tack-Yong Kim, a reporter with the Michigan Korean Weekly. “Eight had heard about AARP, but they thought it was only for white people.”


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.