I recently attended a conference at Rhode Island College about the health and social welfare needs of the Latino elderly in Rhode Island. And what struck me is something a couple of presenters focused on: the growing isolation of older Latinos here.
It's not something that was on my radar before, but it seems their numbers and needs are growing (there are nearly 9,000 Latinos in Rhode Island aged 60 and up). And really, their struggles are similar to those of other ethnic communities, even if language, education, and immigration issues compound them.
Isolation: Bad For Your Health
Isolation isn't just about being lonely; it can affect your health. Here are the headlines of just a few studies linking isolation with poor health outcomes:
- "Older adults reporting social isolation or loneliness show poorer cognitive function 4 years later" (Evidence Based Nursing, April 2014)
- "Does social isolation predict hospitalization and mortality among HIV+ and uninfected older veterans?" (answer: yes) (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Sept. 2013)
- "Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women." (you guessed it: isolation is indeed associated with increased mortality) (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 2013)
Luis Jusino from the Diocese of Providence's Third Age program, a charity that connects Latino seniors with services and programs, walked us through some of the reasons for this growing isolation among Latino elders. Some of it comes from being brought to this country to live with children or grandchildren who've already emigrated here, and then finding one's self without the community connections and supports one was used to. But what's new is that more of those children and grandchildren are having trouble finding work in Rhode Island, so they move and leave older relatives behind.
Poverty, Language, Chronic Illness Are Factors
So many other factors, though, contribute to that isolation, Jusino said: language skills, not only an inability to speak English but perhaps never having learned to read or write in the native language; lack of transportation; chronic illness and mobility problems; Alzheimers disease and other mental illnesses. Lack of resources is another huge one: the average income of the clients Jusino sees in the Third Age program? $10,355 a year.
But what about access to health care services? Well, if the elder is not a U.S. citizen but arrived here lawfully after 1996, he or she has to wait five years before becoming eligible for a service like Medicaid. Even then, the family member who sponsored your entry into the U.S. has to agree to provide some resources. If they're not around or have abandoned that elder? That's when they go see Luis Jusino at Third Age. Well, that's not the only time, but it's a common story, he said. There are other health care programs and services for poor and/or undocumented elderly Latinos. Jusino suggested checking the Dept. of Elderly Affairs web site or that of The Point, RI's Aging and Disability Resource Center.
Offering Services and Support, Encouraging Connection.
Jusino said those resources (the Dept. of Elderly Affairs and The Point) as well as his program, Third Age, can help seniors connect with a range of resources - everything from help applying for benefits (such as SNAP, or food stamps), finding free health care, translation services, home visits, and help getting around. But he said he really tries to connect isolated seniors with meaningful experiences and relationships in the community: coaxing them out to volunteer, take a class, or spend time with people their age at an adult day care center.