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Immigrant Seniors Hard To Reach During Pandemic

KATIE ANASTAS, HOST: City agencies have long faced challenges connecting immigrant seniors to critical services. The pandemic has made it even harder.

Yesterday, Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, commissioner of the New York Department for the Aging, met with the City Council. She said one of the biggest problems is convincing immigrant elders that the government isn’t always a threat -- it can also provide much needed help.

LORRAINE CORTES-VAZQUEZ: The fear is also often due to their social political backgrounds and distrust in government and organizations from their native countries of origin, and fear of being reported for not having adjusted their immigration status.

ANASTAS: Maggie Hernandez is a program coordinator at a senior center in Washington Heights. I spoke with her about how the pandemic is impacting the center’s ability to support Latino immigrants.

What are the main challenges facing immigrant seniors in Washington Heights right now?

MAGGIE HERNANDEZ: I think the first and most important thing is the language barrier. Most of our members speak no English at all, and so they rely on the senior center to do a variety of different things for them, including reading basic letters. They receive lots of letters for benefits that need to be renewed. Some of them are getting cut off in 30 days if it’s not returned. They don’t know what these letters say, and they need a lot of help. The extra challenge right now because of the virus is that many of our seniors are technically challenged, and unable to even take a snapshot of a letter to send to us.

ANASTAS: Immigrant communities often have a fear of providing personal information because of concerns about immigration status. Have you seen any fear among immigrant seniors to provide personal information?

HERNANDEZ: What ends up happening with our members is that, yes, they get lots of phone calls from agencies all over the city, and they’re very reluctant to offer information or even sometimes get certain benefits they would qualify for because of it. But what we’ve asked them to do is that if they’re unsure who they’re speaking to and need assistance, they can call the center. We try to serve as an intermediary.

ANASTAS: What support do caregivers need right now?

HERNANDEZ: I think that a lot of caregivers, honestly, don’t understand that feeling stressed is normal. I think there’s a certain level of guilt in even admitting that they’re tired and stressed out and frustrated. Some caregivers don’t even know that it’s normal to feel the way that they’re feeling and that there is support for them to have.

ANASTAS: What’s something that people who don’t work in senior services might not know about their needs right now?

HERNANDEZ: Everyone is stressed and focusing on what’s needed within their little nucleus. But they’re not realizing that they’re leaving their elderly mother behind and feeling kind of lonely and neglected. And all it takes is a five-minute call a couple times a week to say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you, I hope you’re ok.’ That makes a big difference. My mother is a member of the center, she’s 87 years old, who at first was reluctant to use a smartphone. But she learned it and she’s mastered it.

It’s a running joke for me with our seniors, because before the pandemic they were very much against technology. They would always say, ‘You young people, you’re always carrying your phones and technology is so important to you.’ After the pandemic, they’re all calling and sending messages saying, ‘Please teach me!’ I think the most important thing is that a simple phone call makes a huge difference.

ANASTAS: Maggie Hernandez is a program coordinator at STAR Senior Center in Washington Heights. Maggie, thank you so much again for talking to me, I really appreciate it.

HERNANDEZ: No problem.


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