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FunTimes Magazine

Civic Engagement Through Language and Transportation Access For Elderly Immigrants

By Nana AmaAddo

Aging related loneliness is an unfortunate and national epidemic that can contribute to factors such as declining health, life changes and sudden death, according to the American Seniors Housing Association. Furthermore, a study by Dr. Elena Portacolone at the Institute for Healt h and Aging found that in high crime areas, most African American elders are isolated due to a distrust of neighbors, fear of being robbed and limited access to community services. For elderly African and Caribbean immigrants, in addition to the aforementioned, language and transportation barriers add hardships that compound their vulnerability to loneliness. This was the sad case in Upper Darby, where a Liberian senior committed suicide in 2012. Ms Portia Kamara, Executive Director and co-Founder of Multicultural Family Services Inc (MCFS), says that was a wakeup call that spurred her to create Elders Circle few years later.

Expounding on the seniors emigration backdrop, Kamara explained that many seniors were brought to the Philadelphia region to ensure they were not at risk of the consequences of civil wars that were raging in their home countries, predominantly within the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. But unfortunately, they were stuck at home alone, with just a cell phone to communicate and a television set. Indeed, for many seniors who had led an active, productive lives back home, this was akin to torture. Some elders also severed as child care providers, however, in time, the children grew up and they reverted to being alone.

In discussing the vision of the Elders' Circle, Kamara shared that the aim is to support many immigrant seniors, in particular those of Africa and Caribbean descent, to become less isolated, more involved socially with their peers and integrated into their communities.”

The activities coordinator for the Elders Circle at MCFS is Hawa Sweetie Moore, and she describes the program as follows. “We have outdoor services, multicultural citizenship and dance classes. We sometimes go to the movies or live shows and bowling. MCFS has a bus to pick members up and drop them off. They also participate in arts and crafts, and some especially, love sewing. Part of the activities include learning English as a Second Language (ESL).

“The elders can come here,” Moore continues; “where they meet other seniors who understand them and d speak their language. They do not feel lonely when they are here, and they have expressed that over time.”

Ms. Portia Kamara

“Even now, although the elders are on break, we keep in contact with them and they keep in touch with each other. It is like a family. They have a president and vice president for the group, to help them stay active”.

Some of the partners we work with are the Impact Center, Temple Shalom and Green Horn Gardens. Green Horn Gardens provide a space for seniors to plant their own crops, including okra, potato greens, corn, water greens, and other vegetables they are familiar with.”

Ma Sue is a member of the Elders Circle program from Liberia, West Africa, and she said of the program, “I like everything about the Elders Circle. At this program, the Executive Director and her team treat us well. I used to stay home crying when my husband passed, but since I have been coming to the Elders Circle, I am full of joy.”

All told, through providing transportation access and programs opportunities that allow them to learn English, practice motor skills and playfully “hold management positions”, MCFS helps aging immigrants to partake in civic engagements.

Community healing has been practiced in Africa, and many other parts of the world for centuries, and it has a direct correlation with wellness. In an interview with Dr. Carol Penn, a medical practitioner in Jackson, NJ and founder of Medimovement Meditation, she says: “Community is absolutely fundamental to one's health and wellbeing. Humans are basically herd animals, so we were destined to live in groups or clusters, interdependent upon each other throughout our life span.”“Loneliness is an energy and a disease all by itself. People who feel like they belong, and who feel like they are connected to a community live longer, healthier and happier lives,” Dr. Penn continued.

I further researched another community organization in the Philadelphia area called African Family Health Organization (AFAHO). Oni Richards is the executive director and she laid out their own twist in working with elders.

Oni Richards

“Sometimes it's difficult to bring elders together due to the language barrier. We might have a group of elders from the Congo, Mali, Sudan and Ethiopia. They all speak different languages. Because we're not one of the ethnic groups of these people, language can make it challenging for us to get them to socialize. So, we have language-based groups, including Swahili speakers, Francophone speakers and Arabic speakers.”

Richards believes that the potential for elderly immigrants to contribute to society is immense, if put to proper use. Therefore, AFAHO has this idea of a maternal child health program, which is for pregnant women. A lot of older African women have been around childbirth or cared for a woman who has had a baby. “We could use their expertise here because when many pregnant women have their children and go home from the hospitals, they have no one at the house, and don't know what to do. If we could use these elders in a position like this, where they are paid a stipend to go to these homes and help women care for their babies, I think that would really make them feel useful.”

The second idea, she mentioned, engages the concept of intergenerational learning. “We have young children in the community between 7 and 12 years old who speak pretty good English, but don't speak their native language. Let's say we have an elder who speaks Grebo, from Liberia and there's a young person in the community, who is of the Grebo speaking tribe but doesn't know the language. We want to see how we could have them exchange languages, so the elder teaches the child, Grebo, while the child teaches him or her English.

Having that sort of intergenerational exchange would be beneficial for the children as well as elders.” Richards stated that in addition to structure, trust plays a huge role in the success of programs like these.

“People come here because they trust the work that is being done. They had an experience that was beneficial to them, and go back and tell the people in their social networks. Because of that trust, it is easy for our staff to pick up the phone, call an elder and say 'we're having a program here tomorrow.' If that call was coming from a random agency, they might not show up.”

In other issues, Richards asserted that mental and physical health should be of more concern to African communities but it is not! “Running an agency that is focused on health in African community is very challenging because Africans don't think their health is a priority. People come to America and, for most, priorities include immigration, employment and housing. Health is not a priority for people until they get sick. It's always been very challenging for AFAHO to change this mindset of not waiting until you're very sick to get access to care.”

MCFS Elders

In conclusion, MCFS and AFAHO provide great templates of how ecosystems like these, if replicated in other cities across America, would help to provide transportation access and language immersion programs for senior immigrants, and engender their civic engagement and eschew social isolation.

This reporting is made possible by Renewing Democracy Project, a grant by