Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Culturally Diverse Elders and Their Families: Examining the Need for Culturally Competent Services

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Culturally Diverse Elders and Their Families: Examining the Need for Culturally Competent Services

Article excerpt


The growth of the American population over the age of 65, and more specifically over the age of 85, affects many aspects of our society. Demographic shifts among the aging population of the United States call for a re-examination of our understanding of the needs of these individuals, especially when race, ethnicity, family composition, and country of origin are considered in the discourse. Changes in marital and familial composition are likely to affect the types of familial support that are available to people at older ages. Dynamic trends in these areas are challenging individuals, families, service providers, policymakers, businesses, and health care providers, among others, to better meet the diverse and little understood needs of this portion of the population.

As America becomes an increasingly multicultural society, issues associated with the aging population and ethnicity are rapidly gaining in significance. This paper examines some of the implications of the rapid increase in racial and ethnic diversity among the older population in the United States. Racial and ethnic minority populations are projected to represent 25.4% of the elderly population by 2050, up from 16.4% in 2000. In 2000, an estimated 84 % of individuals age 65 or older identified as white, 8 % as black, 2 % as Asian and Pacific Islander, and less than 1 % as American Indian and Alaska Native. Hispanic individuals were estimated to make up 6 % of the older population. These figures stand in start contrast to the estimates projected for 2050. By 2050, the percentage of the older population that is white is expected to decline from 84 % to 64 %. Hispanics are projected to account for 16 % of the older population; 12 % of the population is projected to be black; and 7 % of the population is projected to be Asian (

In the case of the elderly of European background, broad based statistical documentation often masks significant ethnic differences which influence how these populations deal with the aging process. Demographic trends associated with poverty are another area that also requires attention. In 2000, approx. 3.4 million elderly people (10.2%) were below the poverty level. Another 2.2 million or 6.7% of those 65+ were classified as "near-poor." While most research focuses specifically on middle class elders, these statistics indicate that researchers and practitioners need to account for elders with limited resources in their work.

This paper begins with a discussion addressing the complexities of defining cultural diversity given globalizing trends that often link individuals and families to home societies in little understood ways. The paper then moves to the importance of providing culturally competent services for aging individuals and their families. This is an understudied and little understood area of scholarship and practice in the family field, one that links recent demographic trends with societal issues and solutions. Recognizing disparities, as well as incorporating cultural competence into research and services to the elderly and their families, promises to be a critical component of future scholarship and practice. It also should become an important discussion and research point for family scholars concerned with lifespan and family issues.


"People of color," "ethnic groups," "ethnic minorities," and "cultural minorities" are among the terms used throughout the literature to describe those American individuals who self identify as not being Caucasian or white. Commonly, an ethnic group is described to be "a group with a common cultural tradition and a sense of identity which exists as a subgroup of a larger society" (Theodorson, 1969, p. 135). The term "ethnic groups" in the United States, therefore, encompasses groups of people who settled in the United States and identify with a separate cultural identity than the mainstream culture; that can include people of Irish, ' Italian, German, Russian, Middle Eastern, and African heritage among many others. …

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