Senior Immigrants Are Becoming the Majority

Hamilton Madison House, a non-profit settlement house located in the Chinatown area of Manhattan, provides many senior programs to improve their quality of life.

Hamilton Madison House, a non-profit settlement house located in the Chinatown area of Manhattan, provides a variety of programs to seniors over 60 years old.

With the immigrant population graying, a majority of New York City’s seniors, or 46 percent, will be immigrants in as little as five years, according to a recent study by the Center for an Urban Future.

While the shift in population may seem slight the differences in needs of foreign-born and native-born seniors is great. The annual median income for senior immigrants in New York is only $9,900– about half of that for native seniors. Twenty four percent of immigrants older than 65 are living below the poverty line. Almost 1 out of 3 has no Social Security.

Guzman Dionicio, a 77-year-old Dominican American, receives $300 a month from Social Security but has to pay $425 a month on rent. “I resell souveniers everyday to make money. That is what I can do… Otherwise, I don’t have a place to live,” said Dionicio through an interpreter. “I want the government to provide me affordable house.”

Not only is this population poorer than the general senior population, language obstacles often hinder their outreach to receive government benefits. The study says that 60 percent of immigrants aged 65 and above in New York have limited English proficiency. Over 90 percent of seniors from Korea, China and Russia do not speak English well.

“Even if they get notice from government saying you have been certified to certain things to continue benefits, they don’t know how to even read the letters,” said Ruby Ng, a case worker of Knickerbocker Village Senior service run by Hamilton Madison House, a non-profit settlement house in the Chinatown area of Manhattan.

Lower levels of English proficiency are also a good proxy for how well or not immigrants are assimilating to new norms and lifestyles and whether they are in danger of suffering from isolation and depression, the study says.

When Kwang S. Kim, director of Korean Senior Center of Flushing and also the president of The Korean Community Services, found that many Korean elderly adults traveled from the Bronx to his center, he recommended that some Bronx-based senior centers set up similar activities like computer classes, English classes, art workshops for these seniors. But after a few days, they came back to Kim and said, “We don’t want to go to other centers. We need our own program in our own community center.”

Kim explained, “They cannot fully express their opinion in non-Korean-operated centers… They don’t have the emotional satisfaction there.”

But even for those who speak English well, a cultural gap can still prove to be an obstacle. Feng Li, 80, is able to read English news but still felt it “extremely hard to integrate into the American society.” “Saying hello [to native born Americans] is enough. It is not possible to make friends with them,” Li said.

The study says 72 percent of immigrant grandparents are living with their grandchildren, compared to only 28 percent of native-born seniors. Many seniors are isolated even within their own families. “I speak Mandarin. My daughter and her husband speak Cantonese and my grandchildren only speak English,” Li said, adding that he came to New York in order to help raise his grandchildren, whom, ironically, for him are the most difficult to communicate with.

Sometimes it is not language that contributes to the isolation but there can be generational isolation within a family. “When I came back home, the house was empty,” said Sonia Gacia, a Dominican American. “My husband passed away. My daughters have to work until night. Grandchildren are at school… I feel lonely,” she said through an interpreter.

Kim said this phenomenon is even more commonplace in Korean community. “The depression starts with the deprivation. [The feeling of] I am losing something and I am alone caused the depression,” said Kim.

Isolation and depression is sometimes exacerbated by some specific events, such as disasters. Ng said after Sandy more Chinese seniors became depressed.

According to Moina Shaiq, president of Muslim Support Network, after 9/11, almost 70 percent of Islamic seniors in the country suffer depression. “Elderly Muslims don’t want to socialize and make themselves visible. They don’t know what to expect from people. They are afraid.”

Striving to fight isolation and depression, the non-profit senior center is playing an important role. Ng said they provide seniors with trips and community activities every week. For those who do not live with children and thus have little personal interaction, workers in the center “sometimes talk with them just like their children.” The center also arranges meetings for senior widows, almost 40 percent of members of the center, to help them “hangout.”

Kim, who has been working with the Korean American community for more than 20 years, argues that the non-profit senior centers like where he works are vital to serving the needs of the aging immigrant population. Long-term care like nursing homes is not a realistic option for this population because most of this struggling population could not afford them but also it can be culturally isolating for immigrants, he said.

“Once we have this kind of trend, we are losing the spirit of caring,” said Kim, believing that to avoid the isolation of senior immigrants, long-term care is not a long-term way.