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Aging Gracefully
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Aging Gracefully

Live longer, live better.

Aging in the Hispanic Community
The older Hispanic population is one of the fastest growing groups in the nation. About five million Hispanics in this country have reached their 50th birthday. But more striking is the projected rate of growth for this population.

  • In 1990, 5.1 percent of the Hispanic population was 65 or older.

  • Demographers expect that this number will reach 14.1 percent by 2020, a far higher increase than predicted for older African Americans, or non-Hispanic whites.

Given these increasing numbers, it is critical to raise awareness about the needs of this group.

The Importance of Family
Emphasis placed on the central role of family is one value of Hispanic culture that has the potential to influence the quality and type of health care services that older Hispanics receive. Hispanics tend to place great value on advice from family members, friends and community members, rather than on individual intuition or institutions. The traditional Hispanic family may incorporate extended members of the family (including aunts, uncles, cousins and close family friends), in addition to parents and siblings, in decision-making related to daily issues, as well as in illness management. Successfully improving the lives of these older adults involves interdependence among the generations.

Unique Challenges for Hispanic Elderly
It is important to keep in mind that many things - particularly language and socio-economic barriers - can affect access to care for elderly Hispanics.

  • Many who are not fluent in the English language may have difficulty communicating with English-speaking health care providers.

  • The use of technical or medical terminology may also hinder the communication process as well as the reluctance of the individual to admit to a lack of understanding.

  • The elderly Hispanic who does not speak English may not receive adequate information to facilitate decision-making related to traditional activities in life as well as to health related issues.

  • Many older Hispanics may rely on younger generations to translate important health-related information.

  • Approximately one out of every 12 elderly Hispanics has no health insurance at all, restricting access to health care.

  • Entrance into the health care system is usually affected by socioeconomic factors such as problems with employer-based health plans, limited coverage for migrant or undocumented Hispanics and limited coverage for seasonal workers.

  • Often, wage earners in Hispanic families are providing for an extended family, where insurance coverage is not available to all members of the family such as older parents.

Aging Well, Living Well
Hispanic seniors can maintain the quality of their lives if they and they people who care for them addressing the health-related aspects of four different areas: food and nutrition, exercise, volunteering and family caregiving.

Food and Nutrition: Eating Better Helps
As with many cultures, food is an integral part of family gatherings and community celebrations in the Hispanic culture. But because of the nature of Hispanic diets, diabetes is a significant concern in Hispanic populations.

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six percent of Hispanic adults in the United States and Puerto Rico have been diagnosed with diabetes. This rate is an astounding 50 percent higher than that of white Americans.

  • Approximately 21.4 percent of Hispanics aged 65 and older have been diagnosed with the disease.

  • Families, especially in Hispanic culture, can influence the quality and type of health care services that seniors receive.

Older Hispanics with diabetes and their families need to consider how much and how often they eat, and how they prepare their food. Cooking with olive oil instead of lard and limiting salt intake, or using fresh herbs and spices like cilantro to season foods are just two examples of ways that Hispanics can prepare healthier foods without sacrificing taste. (For more information on diabetes, please go to our Diabetes page within Your Families.)

In addition, older Hispanics should be aware that they are disproportionately at risk for suffering from poor nutrition due to limited access to basic medical care. Poor nutrition is associated with many adverse health conditions, including increased risk for chronic disease, infection, disability, longer hospital stays and readmission.

Exercise Can Make a Difference
Aside from maintaining a well-balanced diet, few factors contribute to successful aging as much as having a physically active lifestyle. Millions of Americans, primarily older adults, suffer from chronic illness that can be prevented or improved through regular physical activity.

Regular physical activity is crucial in the prevention of chronic diseases (such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity), disabilities (such as osteoporosis and arthritis) and chronic disease risk factors (such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol).

  • According to the Surgeon General's Report on Activity and Health, physical inactivity is more common among minority groups than whites, among older than younger adults and among less affluent than the more affluent groups.

  • The same report found Hispanics have the highest prevalence of physical inactivity (38 percent of men and 58 percent of women).

Older adults face many of the same obstacles to being more physically active as younger adults and need exercise as much as everyone else.

  • All adults should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on five or more days of the week.

  • Most experts suggest that a combination of endurance, strength, flexibility and balance activities are required to improve health and functional abilities in the older population.

  • Older adults can obtain significant health benefits simply by walking or gardening.

  • Dance classes and exercise programs designed to meet the needs of older adults can help seniors become-and remain-active. These programs are particularly successful when promoted through intergenerational activities such as walking groups, cooking lessons or a community gardening project.

  • Studies have found physical activity often reduces symptoms of depression in old age as well as the amount of cognitive decline older adults experience as they age.

Volunteering: Stay Engaged With Life
Another way for older adults to age "successfully" by avoiding disability and disease is to remain productively engaged with life. Although early depictions of retirement as a roleless role may have been accurate at one time, that is no longer the case.

  • A recent poll of people aged 50 to 75 found that 65 percent of those polled view retirement as a new chapter in their life and an opportunity to remain engaged.

  • Many older adults sustain busy and active lives and play productive parts in their families and communities post-retirement.

  • Some pursue leisure activities, others care for grandchildren or other family members, and others are involved in community service.

  • More than one-fourth of Americans aged 65 to 74 are volunteers.

  • As a whole, older individuals typically choose to undertake activities such as: mentoring and tutoring, fundraising, serving on boards and committees, and working in hospitals, nursing homes and hospice organizations.

It should be noted that Hispanics do not volunteer in the traditional American pattern. Hispanic volunteerism usually takes place in the home, and secondarily, in the neighborhood and church. As a result, elderly Hispanics, who may be inclined to follow this pattern, remain a valuable, untapped resource for mainstream, community-based organizations.

Family Caregiving
Although many older adults are willing and able to remain active in the community during their retirement years, others find themselves in need of caregiving services.

  • Thirty-four percent of Hispanic American households take responsibility for the care of parents and older relatives, and their commitment is frequently substantial: financial support, personal care and helping obtain medical attention.

  • More than half of all Hispanic caregivers have a child age 18 or younger living at home.

  • Hispanics are more likely than others to have grown up with grandparents and other relatives in the household. Therefore, many find themselves not only assisting their own children and parents when they grow older, but also grandchildren, nieces, nephews and even children of friends and neighbors.

  • Hispanic caregivers are less likely than other groups to have sought help from national and community organizations, likely due to language and cultural barriers.

  • The majority of Hispanic caregivers rely on faith, prayer, family and friends as an important resource in coping with their caregiving responsibilities.

Research has consistently shown that older members of minority groups are more reliant on family caregiving than older non-Hispanic whites. Many attribute this difference to a combination of fewer economic resources and a cultural preference among minorities for care by the family. As a result, minority families are considered the long-term care system for minority elders.

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