The Best of…New Strategies are Needed to Work with Hispanic Seniors

Published April 16, 2001, Pawtucket Times 

           As expected, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 census data reveals that the United States of America has truly become a “tossed salad” of races and ethnic groups.Rhode Island’s growing minority population reflects this national trend.  Minority groups represent about 25 percent of the state’s total population.  In Providence, minority groups are now in the majority.

            The Hispanic population in Rhode Island, now representing 8.7 percent of the state’s total population, has doubled in the past ten years, climbing from 45,752 in the 1990 census to 90,820 in the latest census figures.  Eighty percent of this increase has occurred in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls.

            Aging service providers will need to adopt new strategies and ways to enhance access to programs and services to a growing Hispanic senior population.     

            Census data does not always give us an accurate demographic snap shot of the nation’s population, warned Edgar E. Rivas, Vice President for Policy at the National Hispanic Council on Aging.  “We really don’t know how many Latino elders are out there because of the potential undercount of immigrant Latino elders,” he stated.            

            Oftentimes, Hispanic families are not accurately reflected in census data because of their own distrust of the U.S. Census Bureau, Rivas told The Times.  . “Even those aging service providers who have a knowledge base of serving this population will have a very hard time if the undercounted seniors come out of the wood work,” he said.

            “Aging service providers will have to relearn how to conduct culturally appropriate outreach and to provide services in ways that are comfortable to their Hispanic clients,” Rivas added.  To often Latino elders may be eligible for services but because of the way the services are delivered, they don’t feel welcome to the services, he noted, ultimately the choose to rely on informal caregivers or just go without services.

            According to Rivas, informational materials about programs and services will have to be rewritten to reflect the specific needs of older Hispanics.  For instance, the Health Care Finance Administration offers bilingual materials to explain federal programs, like Medicare and Medicaid.  Even with this material written in Spanish, many aging Hispanic elders are intimidated by the way the information is presented.  This problem can easily be corrected if Hispanic aging advocates develop more user-friendly materials (e.g., using Spanish language videos, peer educators or literature using pictures to illustrate issues).

              Ann Hill, former director of the Providence-based Saint Martin de Porres Senior Center and well-known aging advocate, states that with a more ethnically diverse population, nonprofit agencies must hire personnel that can reach out, understand and meet the needs of various ethnic groups.  She calls for more public dollars to be provided to the agencies to help them accomplish this goal.

             ,Joan Crawley, Senior Center Director at the Leon Mathieu Senior Center, agrees.   With interpreters who speak Spanish and Cape Verdian Creole at Pawtucket’s senior center, non-English speaking CapeVerdian and Hispanic seniors can now come in to see a primary care physician, with a social worker on hand to interpret their medical complaints and to explain treatment plans.  The social work is also available to case manage any of the other social service needs that the Hispanic or CapeVerdian client may have.

             “We’re always trying to increase the trust level between our staff and the ethnic seniors who come to our senior center,”Crawley added, noting that she wants them to feel comfortable bringing their problems to her staff.  

             Susan Sweet, Chairperson of the Rhode Island Elder Minority Task Force and a consultant for minority and nonprofit agencies, commented that she applauds “the efforts of agencies serving elders to diversity their staff and services to serve all the elders in their communities.  However, it is extremely important to acknowledge, support, and strengthen those agencies that have been and continue to be the basic resource for minority elders, such as Progreso Latino, Cape Verdian Community Development Association (CACD), and Projecto Esperanza, to name a few in the Pawtucket/Central Falls area.”

             “No longer can we do business as in the past.  We must update our strategies of delivering programs and service to meet the new century of diversity,” Sweet said. 

             Herb Weiss covers health, medical care and aging issues.  This article appeared in The Pawtucket Times in April 16, 2001.  He can be reached at