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Immigrant and Refugee Older Adults

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Authored by Marta Pereyra, Coalition of Limited English-Speaking Elderly (CLESE)


Older immigrants in America face many challenges in maintaining their independence, economic security and active relations with their friends and families. Older adults with limited English face the same barriers as their native speaking counterparts in combination with the problem of adequately communicating with society. With the lack of speaking English, paired up with the strains that often accompany coming to the US late in life, special efforts must be made to serve limited English-speaking older adults. These include communicating with them in their native language and ensuring that they have equitable access to governmental programs and services.

Programs and services offered to elderly immigrants have evolved somewhat over the past three decades yet the focus has remained the same: helping them navigate the complex system of public benefits and long-term care programs. Over the years, programs have either addressed a demonstrated need in limited English-speaking populations or have been an exploration of a particular need.  Funding for elderly immigrants’ programs focused on health screening and health education, understanding how to navigate health and safety benefits, citizenship preparation, and English instruction as well as elder abuse and neglect identification and intervention, Alzheimer’s disease awareness, combating depression, and other projects.

In order to ensure continued program relevance and attention to critical issues, it is crucial to discuss issues of concern with immigrant and refugee communities regarding services for elderly immigrants, research issues in specific ethnic populations, conduct surveys among providers of services, and have recurring conversations with major funders, officials and other aging network stakeholders.

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The biggest issues affecting older immigrants right now and probably in years to come are social isolation and economic insecurity.

Social Isolation: The financial insecurity of older immigrants stems from the sense of social isolation and loneliness. Many ethnic community leaders as well as researchers find that social isolation is the main issue affecting ethnic minority seniors. Older people who migrate to the US late in life leave much of their livelihood behind. Social isolation is most visible when older immigrants come to join their families in the US and help raise their grandchildren. During that time, they are fully dependent on their adult children for everything––from resources to transportation to the roof over their heads. The sense of community and connection with others was broken when they left their country of origin. After the time of helping their families is over, they lose that sense of purpose and relevance, and they become isolated. It is only a small step from social isolation to depression. Therefore, programs and services that focus on battling depression and social isolation together with building a sense of community for elderly immigrants should be priorities for funders.

Economic Insecurity: About half of older immigrants in the US are low-income, first-generation Americans who due to lack of English proficiency and low education often perform low-paid jobs such as caregiving, cleaning, cooking, farming, etc. They also have a poverty rate that is double the rate of other older adults. While some are highly-educated engineers, IT specialists or skilled high-tech entrepreneurs, more than two-thirds of recent older immigrants do not speak English well. In the US, linguistic and cultural barriers prevent them from entering the job market or accessing public benefits. This is when the funder support becomes most relevant. Older immigrants need education, assistance and support navigating the system. Funders should look into more systemic ways of funding across multiple sectors and intervention planning. Joint projects between community-based organizations and cities’ social service systems should provide new and interesting ways of engaging elderly immigrants and offering services and programs that would build cultural bridges. In addition, specific guidance to human services workers on how to assist elderly immigrants could help them overcome barriers. 

Older immigrants face different issues in urban and rural settings. 

Urban Immigration: Many large cities in America are gateways for older immigrants: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, etc. In some of these cities, public transportation instruction is offered in at least two or three languages but in others English is the only language. The way local communities think about minority populations, including older immigrants, and plan ahead to offer systems that will ease cultural adaptation and encourage social integration has a great future. 

Rural Immigration: Older immigrants are changing rural America as well. More and more, we see ethnic minorities moving into the small towns of the Midwest and South. The current influx of older immigrants from Southeast Asia and East Africa has brought many farmers and people with agricultural experience to rural America. Immigrants of 60 years and older can still find jobs in agricultural plants or local farms where they can utilize their skills and knowledge of farming. Having some savings or going on retirement are often unknown concepts for many older immigrants. Very often, elderly immigrants do not have resources and they often cite “you work until you die” as the retirement policy in their country of origin.

For the past three decades, the Coalition of Limited English-Speaking Elderly (CLESE) has worked on a variety of issues, all addressing the disparity of services and benefits or seeking to inform mainstream providers and officials about particular needs of immigrant, refugee and migrant elderly. There are many examples of CLESE intervention in building programs that bring older immigrants and refugees together. Some of the examples are: 

How Philanthropy Has Helped

Funders have supported research and programs on older immigrant issues.  

  • The Denver Regional Council of Governments' (DRCOG) Elder Refugee Program is funded through the Older Americans Act (OAA) and a grant from the Colorado Refugee Services Program. The program serves refugee elders from a wide variety of countries and provides participants and their families with information about services for elders.
  • Covenant Place Foundation provides culturally competent staff with language fluency to support Chinese older adults living at Covenant Place apartments.
  • A $212,500 pooled fund from the Scattergood Foundation supports health and wellness programs for immigrant and refugee communities in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
  • The Fund for New Citizens in The New York Community Trust issued $974,000 in grants to 15 groups to help New York City’s immigrants understand their rights.


Population Reference Bureau, “Elderly Immigrants in the United States,” October 31, 2013, https://www.prb.org/us-elderly-immigrants/referenced July 24, 2018.

O’Neil, K, Tienda, M. (2015). The Journal of Gerontology, Vol. 70, Issue 2, March 2015, “Age at Immigration and the Incomes of Older Immigrants, 1994-2010, pages 291-302, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbu075


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