Working Successfully with diverse older adult populations: Get to know the individual and build trust

By Alula Jimenez Torres

Even though different racial and ethnic minority groups have unique issues, they also face common challenges. To successfully work with these populations, providers must get to know the people they are serving. These were the key takeaways from “Working Successfully with Diverse Older Adult Populations,” a presentation by the National Aging Resource Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Minority Seniors at the 2014 n4a Conference and Tradeshow.

[Left to right] Maria Hernandez-Peck (ANPPM), Randella Bluehouse (NICOA), and Alula Jimenez Torres (NAPCA)

[Left to right] Maria Hernandez-Peck (ANPPM), Randella Bluehouse (NICOA), and Alula Jimenez Torres (NAPCA)

Representatives from the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA), the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA), and Asociación Nacional Pro Personas Mayores (ANPPM) discussed barriers to accessing services, strategies for working with, and resources for Asian American and Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Hispanic older adults.

A growing percentage of the older adult population

All three groups highlighted that their populations are not only growing, but are also a growing percentage of the older adult population. In particular, there is a substantial increase in American Indians moving off the reservation and into urban areas. Thus, it is imperative for providers of aging services to be prepared to serve these populations.

Linguistic and cultural diversity

Part of what providers need to prepare for is the linguistic and cultural diversity among the seniors in these populations. Again, all three groups discussed the challenge of being lumped into singular Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), American Indian and Alaska Native, and Hispanic categories. Each population consists of many sub-groups with very different cultures and, in the case of AAPIs and American Indians and Alaska Natives, distinct languages. Although our partner from the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, Inc. was unable to attend, Dianne Freeman from the Administration on Community Living also noted the increasing diversity in the black community, ranging from African-Americans with ancestral ties to slavery in the United States, to more recent African immigrants and Afro-Caribbeans.

Mistrust in our communities

We discussed the issue of mistrust in our communities that can be a critical barrier to seeking out or receiving services. These individuals, especially seniors, are affected by historical trauma because of their experiences, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study and the appropriation of tribal lands. After years of disenfranchisement, racial and ethnic minorities question: “Why now? Why do you want to help us now?”

Work with trusted community leaders

To overcome these barriers, service providers need to build more sensitive relationships with the communities and individuals they are serving. We, as service providers, need to work with trusted community leaders and existing support networks. There are many established organizations within racial and ethnic communities that are outside of the formal Aging Network. Service providers could partner with trusted organizations to more effectively serve target communities.

Take a person-centered approach

On the individual level, it is time service providers take a person-centered approach to the people we serve and allow diverse populations to define their identities for themselves. This will allow individuals and the community to be served in a dignified and culturally appropriate manner. This is how we can all work successfully with diverse older adult populations.

Alula Jimenez Torres is the Healthy Aging Program Manager at the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.