The rich cultural heritage of Latinos includes a sense of responsibility and commitment to care for our elders. However, with both spouses working and having to take care of the children, there is not much time and energy left to nurse an elderly mami or abuelita. What to do?
TAKING CARE OF OTHERS´ ELDERS
According to Aismet Rodriguez, a Colombian home health aid in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Latinos are increasingly unable to keep their elders at home.
“I’ve taken care of nine elders in the past 14 years,” Aismet says. “I never met the family of one Cuban lady I took care of for several years. That’s very sad. She considered me her family.”
Aismet believes that seniors are better off at home, with their own children, but that she understands that is not a viable option for everyone.
“If they can’t handle it because of family and work obligations, they need to know that if they visit [their elders at an assisted living facility] often and call them and talk to them, it is a far better option than leaving them alone in the house.”
Aismet admits that the job is taking a toll on her and that she’s considering a career change, but still in her free time, she visits nursing homes and takes gifts to the residents or spends time with them.
“Without love and attention, they get depressed and feel that there is nothing left for them to fight for.”
IT’S MY TURN NOW
Soe Kabbabe, 22, is a NY based beauty editor and writer from Venezuela. Two years ago, she had to make a choice to move to NY or stay behind to care for her elderly grandmother who has had Alzheimer’s for as long as Soe can remember.
“When my mother became ill with cancer, I had to take care of both her and my grandmother. I was 18, and I had to take mami to the hospital for her treatments and clean up after my grandmother, plus study,” recalls Soe. “It was a horrible time. It took a toll on my health too, and I would cry a lot. I even thought of taking my own life.”
Soe’s mother had eight siblings, but apparently, none of them helped out and Soe shouldered the burden alone. She also felt her ill-tempered grandmother didn’t appreciate her efforts.
“When my mother died in 2009, my life changed. I couldn’t face going home to my grandmother. My extended family wanted me to take care of her, but I was only 20. I had met my now husband over the Internet, so after I finished college, I moved to New York and we married. It may sound selfish, but I needed to move on after losing my mom.”
Her grandmother now lives with Soe´s aunt and uncle in Venezuela, and has dementia. “I was a young girl facing a very tough situation. I never went to parties or had a normal Christmas,” says Soe. “I feel bad about it all sometimes, but now it’s my turn.”
COPING WITH CANCER OR CARING FOR MAMÁ
Annete Leal Mattern, 62, a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, had to make the decision of putting her mother in a nursing home when she turned 80. Annette is a cancer survivor who has been battling the disease for many years and she is the Founder and President of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Arizona. She could not take on the added stress of caring for her mother, who had cardiac problems that required specialized care.
Annette doesn’t regret her decision. Her mother, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, is now 90 and lives in an assisted living facility in Portland, Oregon, close to another one of her daughters. Thanks to having worked as a schoolteacher and being the widow of a veteran, she had financial resources and benefits for excellent care.
“She is also unusual for her age and cultural background, in that she doesn’t want any of her daughters to be burdened by her needs, although being with family is important,” Annette says. She stresses the importance of regular visits from family, but also points out the benefits her mother receives in the assisted living facility such as exercise classes, cultural outings, and an active social life.
Annette´s sister, who lives closer to their mother, is undergoing health challenges and the family is considering moving their mom closer to Annette, who is also battling a recurrence of her cancer.
“Are the children the right ones to be caregivers?” Annette questions. “What if they (the children) need care themselves? What is the quality of life for the elder? Many abuelitas end up caring for young children, which can present another set of issues and opportunities.”
Annette knows that not everybody has the choices her mother has. Those without adequate financial means are forced to bring the elders home, just as families have done for centuries. But what if they are able to send their parents to an assisted living facility or nursing home? How can they not feel guilty about it?
“I would ask them to look into their hearts and imagine being their own mami at 80 or 90,” Annette suggests. “How would they want to be treated? What would bring them joy? How can they make the relationship grow in this new situation? The elders who thrive in assisted living facilities have a sense of purpose, feel loved and honored, and are active and involved in family life. For example, we often ask Mom’s advice on matters, even if we already know which direction we’re going in, because we want her to feel connected to family decisions.”
THE EXPERT SPEAKS
Dr. Belisa Vranich, a renowned health expert of Cuban and Serbian descent, offered these expert tips:
On deciding when it’s time for a nursing home
“The two most important things to weigh are the older adult’s wishes, and how living at home may be taxing the family or one particular member. There may come a time when living at home is medically impossible for the older adult.”
On taking mami to a nursing facility
“I encourage people to talk early on about how they’d like to live their last years. It’s important to have that conversation when the person is healthy because later on they may not be able to. An older adult living at a facility can be a huge financial burden to the family, but having the elder at home can be terribly stressful for the couple.”
On dealing with guilt
“Many women feel that they have not done their job if they do not keep their elder alive and at home as long as possible. They won’t consider outside help because they believe it is inferior to what they can provide or because they don’t want a stranger in their home. They will be martyrs and not ask or demand help from the rest of the family. I tell them that they cannot define the quality of their relationship by how much they suffer to keep that older adult comfortable.”
On the Latino sense of responsibility
“We still have the idea that ‘sending them away’ is not a loving thing to do. Most often the person deciding is looking at the problem from their own perspective: what would I want, rather than from the older adult or family’s perspective. I’ve seen relationships fall apart and families fight with each other over these decisions. Something the older adult would have never wanted to cause.”
FACTS ON LATINO SENIORS
- According to the Census Bureau, Latino elders have a higher life expectancy than non-Hispanic whites. However, the report A Profile of Hispanic Elders, states that 30% of elder Hispanics rate their health as being poor compared to only 25% of Anglos. This may mean that they require more health care than their Anglo counterparts.
- Research by Brown University reflects that Latino seniors are more likely to live in lower quality nursing homes, due to lower income. Many are uninsured, others have little or no experience with medical insurance, and healthcare and sometimes there is a language barrier between the elder and facility staff charged with caring for them.
- Stanford University has conducted research that states that Latino families are less likely to use nursing home care than other ethnic groups and if they do, the subjects are usually younger and more impaired than their Anglo counterparts.