NHCOA Regional Meetings: Leveraging the Power of Stories and Grassroots Leadership

Access to health care, Medicare fraud, poverty, and hunger were the most pressing issues discussed at the Miami and Dallas Open Forums, which are part of the National Hispanic Council on Aging’s 2014 Promoting Communities of Success Regional Meeting series.

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The data speaks for itself:

  • Over one-quarter of the Hispanic population is in poverty.
  • There are about 750,000 older adults nationwide experiencing hunger and 5 million facing food insecurity. Of these, Hispanic older adults are 20% more likely to be hungry.
  • Latino seniors and diverse elders are more likely to suffer specific chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

However, data indicators, pie charts, and percentages eventually have a desensitizing effect on the reader. Without a face or a story to accompany the statistics, it is difficult to empathize with those affected or gain perspective about the severity of the issue.

As the leading national organization working to improve the lives of Hispanic older adults, their families, and caregivers, NHCOA relies greatly on community-based organizations that serve Latino seniors and families, as well as community leaders, to understand the needs and concerns of our Hispanic aging population. These are the folks who are the “front lines” — those who witness and are directly affected by issues that keep Latino seniors from aging securely and in the best health possible. In an effort to record these stories, anecdotes, and experiences, as well as promote bottom-up leadership, we launched the Promoting Communities of Success Regional Meeting series in 2011.

To achieve this, NHCOA began traveling to different areas of the country with the highest concentrations of Hispanic older adults and Latino families. By going directly to the community, we eliminate communication barriers, develop stronger ties, and create a unique opportunity for seniors, families, professionals, and local leaders to speak up and engage with each other. Each regional meeting consists of two parts: the Empowerment and Civic Engagement Training and the Open Forum.

The Empowerment & Civic Engagement Training (ECET) is NHCOA’s signature CEU-certified two-day popular education course. It was designed to train local, intergenerational leaders to mobilize their communities and create positive changes through grassroots advocacy campaigns. To date, more than 1,000 community leaders have successfully gone through the training, of which dozens are certified to teach the ECET in their respective communities.

Following the ECET we host an Open Forum, a culturally and linguistically sensitive space that brings together local CBOs, community leaders, seniors, professionals, and local policymakers to connect. We listen to first-hand accounts from Hispanic older adults, their families, and caregivers detailing concerns and problems they face on a daily basis, and they have the opportunity to connect with local resources and information to advance their quality of life.

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This year’s regional meetings are focused on the issues of healthcare, hunger, and poverty—three pressing issues which are of critical importance to the daily lives of Hispanic older adults. We launched the series mid-May in Miami, FL and recently wrapped up our regional meeting in Dallas, TX. At these Open Forums, we have heard numerous stories of the tough decisions people are making on a daily basis: skipping meals to fill a medical prescription or skipping medication doses to eat more. We have heard stories of Medicare fraud, myths regarding healthcare coverage, prevalent and persistent hunger, and the frustrations they feel each day.

Just as I tell the participants before we start the discussions, these stories make a difference and will have an impact beyond the meeting. After our final regional meeting in Los Angeles in August, we will compile and analyze the information gathered at each Open Forum and issue a report which will be released in September in Washington, DC. (The 2011, 2012 and 2013 versions of this report are available on the NHCOA website.) While we have a long road ahead to solve the problems our diverse elder communities face, working together we can achieve a stronger, golden America for all.

The NHCOA Regional Meeting in Los Angeles will be hosted at the California Endowment from August 19-21, 2014. For more information, contact events@nhcoa.org or visit www.nhcoa.org. The 2014 Promoting Communities of Success Regional Meeting series is made possible with the support of Abbvie, Lilly, and Univision.

Dr. Yanira Cruz is the President and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.