Senior Centers, Nursing Homes Respond to Increased Diversity

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More Retirees Find Facilities Speaking Their Language
Familiar Care in a Foreign Land

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"It’s very important for me to be among Russian speakers," said the onetime preschool teacher from Ukraine who earned three medals digging trenches near Stalingrad during World War II. "Everything he was telling and reading from his book corresponded with things I’d gone through in my life."

Rososhanskaya is one of 42 Russian-speaking residents at the Rockville facility, which is responding to what experts believe will be a growing demand for multicultural offerings at senior centers and nursing homes as America’s elderly population becomes increasingly diverse.

In the Washington area, which has residents from 193 countries, there are retirement homes that cater to a single ethnic group, such as Chinese or Korean, serving their native foods and hiring staff who speak their native tongues. Now some general population facilities are also tailoring their services to an increasingly diverse clientele.

"Everyone is going to have to learn more about various ethnic and cultural sensitivities, because the marketplace of aging is getting more diverse," said Larry Minnix, president and chief executive of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. "I think, over the next five to 10 years, you’re going to see a lot of attention paid to this."

About 10 percent of people 65 and older in the United States are foreign-born. The Pew Research Center estimates that by 2050, that figure will rise to 20 percent, with the total number of elderly immigrants quadrupling to about 16 million.

The movement to serve this population seems to be taking root in individual facilities that see a need rather than coming as a top-down corporate decision. Representatives for large national organizations such as Leisure World and Sunrise Senior Living said they knew of no such programs in their organizations.

Ian Brown, chairman of the diversity and inclusion council at Erickson Living, a retirement organization with 23,000 residents nationwide, said multiculturalism sometimes begins with the employees, who increasingly come from countries such as Nigeria, India and the Philippines.

"They go home to their own parents and say, ‘Hey, this is something that celebrates you and celebrates me, and I think this would be a great place for you to be,’ " Brown said, adding that the facility where he is based, in Illinois, hosts special meals that showcase staff members’ homelands.

In some ways, moving into a retirement facility can be a bigger culture shock than immigration itself. While younger immigrants usually learn some English and adapt to American culture for school and work, those who arrive after retirement often have less incentive to assimilate. Staying at home and communicating through younger family members, they can cling to their language and customs for decades.

But with fewer old-world extended families to care for them at home, many face the prospect of nursing homes where the language, food and signs are unfamiliar and where staff members and fellow residents might know nothing about their backgrounds.

On top of that, in many cultures, separating an old person from the family is taboo. Leaders of Muslim communities have approached Minnix’s organization looking for facilities, but also expressing ambivalence. "There’s a bias — if your mother has to be put somewhere, then you’re not fulfilling your responsibility," he said.

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