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NHCOA is excited about its participation in the Annual Conference of the American Society on Aging to take place this week in Washington, D.C.  This year, the Conference is working to incorporate a focus on diverse aging populations across the U.S.  This effort is critically important as America’s diverse elders continue to grow as a percentage of the U.S. aging population.  Hispanic elders are the fastest growing aging population in the nation, expected to grow by about 150% by 2050.

Diverse elders need programs and services designed to take into account their needs, which may include cultural and linguistic differences.  Key to this idea is provision of outreach and services that are culturally competent.  Cultural competence is the willingness and ability of an individual or a system to recognize and respect the culture of the person for whom a service is being performed. It also involves the development of a point of view that values differences and is responsive to diversity. Cultural competence goes beyond bilingualism to the way one expresses oneself and how one understands the mores and nuances of other cultures.  For example, there are at least seven different words for a drinking straw in Spanish.  These words are national or regional in origin and knowing which word to use with whom depending on their country of origin is a measure of cultural competency.

Hispanic seniors are known for being hard to reach and serve.  This is because they not only have cultural and linguistic gaps from the larger U.S. culture, but that, depending on their countries of origin and level of acculturation, they are a diverse population within themselves.  It takes a person and a system dedicated to cultural competency to reach and serve them successfully.  The best way to incorporate this level of cultural competency into the system is to incorporate people and organizations that are from the local communities and know the cultures and linguistic nuance in these communities.

An older adult described the experience of trying to communicate with someone who was not culturally competent, “Communicating with someone who doesn’t really understand me or who does not  know where I am coming from when I have a question is very difficult.  It’s even more difficult when I try to find programs to meet my basic needs of food, housing, and health and I cannot find them.  Things are too difficult to find and sometimes I even have to go to bed hungry.”

NHCOA recommends that all programs and services targeting Hispanic older adults are dedicated to a high standard of cultural competency.  We are excited to bring this message to the American Society on Aging this week.