Volunteer 'Ambassadors' Help Calif. United Nations of Elders

By Stockwell, Lisa | Aging Today, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview
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Volunteer 'Ambassadors' Help Calif. United Nations of Elders


Stockwell, Lisa, Aging Today


Nestled along the southeast corner of the San Francisco Bay, the tri-city area of Fremont, Newark and Union City was once a quiet enclave of white middleclass families. But as emerging technologies in nearby Silicon Valley and the area's relative affordability drew immigrants from all over the globe, demographics began to shift rapidly.

Today, not only is the area's original population rapidly aging, but also 47% of its residents are foreign born and 57% speak a language other than English at home. Although many younger immigrants have assimilated into American culture, their parents and more recently arrived refugees are challenged by a language and system they don't comprehend. Today, the senior population in the Tri-City area resembles a miniature United Nations, with its own need for diplomacy and understanding between its many ethnic and faith groups.

As communities across the United States seek new ways to improve the lives of older adults, Fremont and its TriCity Elder Coalition - an affiliation of more than 60 community, health and governmental agencies - has faced the added challenge of extensive cultural diversity. Through an innovative program, Pathways to Positive Aging, launched in 2006, the coalition is not only responding to the needs of more than 30,000 elders, but is also successfully creating a model that can be replicated in other multicultural communities.

With such a culturally rich popula- tion, Fremont's Human Services Depart- ment was forced to look past common assumptions about what older people now need or want from their local gov- ernment. The agency's goal, from the outset, was to build capacity to serve seniors in. their own communities and in their own languages and cultural norms. "The best way to start that process," explained Suzanne Shenfil, the coalition's director of human services, "was to create an interactive model that engaged the many diverse groups that make up this community."

This collaborative process brought 25 trained focus-group facilitators from the community together with city staff, members of the coalition and 14 groups of seniors from a range of cultures and subcultures. Among them were Taiwanese, Chinese, Latino, Afghan, Sikh, Indian and white elders, as well as elders of different sexual orientations.

The goal was to understand each group's challenges, what services were already working and what parts of the system needed improvement in order to create an aging-friendly community that is safe, where seniors can be mobile and actively involved, and where meaningful exchanges between cultures and generations can exist.

"We learned a great deal about each group's cultural norms and values that we could not have imagined without talking to the seniors themselves," said Asha Chandra, marketing and communications coordinator for Pathways to Positive Aging.

ONE SIZE NOT FOR ALL

Even though the initiative helped to increase community awareness of issues in aging, said Shenfil, "particular attention has been focused on older adults who are at increased risk because of poverty, race, ethnicity, chronic illness and advanced age or who have physical and cognitive needs, which require longterm care and supportive services."

Although the study team found agreement that age itself presented common challenges of discrimination, harassment, isolation and reduced mobility, there was also consensus that each ethnic or faith group was unique and that the same outreach methods would not be effective for them all. The coalition determined the need to communicate through ethnic and cultural media, including newspapers, flyers and radio, as well as to reach seniors in places where they gathered within their communities, such as events, fairs and home visits.

Another invaluable discovery emerged from these conversations. By giving older adults the opportunity to express their concerns and engaging them in the process of strategic development, the TriCity Elder Coalition found a new source of volunteers.

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