Changing the Narrative on Older Immigrants

              When you think about older adults, what comes to mind? Growing older is commonly associated with declining health and mobility—being able to do fewer activities, becoming unable to care for yourself, and generally being in a state of ill health. Aging is also associated with physical changes, and many people fear ‘looking their age’ by showing gray hairs or wrinkles. We can see these stereotypical images all around us: for example, consider advertisements for ‘anti-aging’ or ‘anti-wrinkle’ cream. Furthermore, the increase in the number of older adults in the U.S. has led to public fears that this will cause a strain on government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Media personalities discuss the ‘impending collapse’ of these programs as well as the overwhelming burden expected to be placed on healthcare and caregiving services. Overall, the U.S. is a youth-centered society where ageism is hidden in plain sight.

              As an emerging scholar in aging studies with a background in sociology, I can see the harm in these narratives about older adults. The way we think and talk about certain groups can have a very real impact on how they are treated in society, including their access to opportunities and resources. Public discourse and ‘common-sense beliefs’ also impact policies and inform practices within many institutions. It is possible to hold a bias without being conscious of it, which then informs actions. Scholars are not immune from these biases, which persist if beliefs are not critically examined.

Sandy Grande, an indigenous scholar, points out that the academic literature is full of these same narratives about older adults. She explains in her 2018 article, “Aging, Precarity, and the Struggle for Indigenous Elsewheres” that research on aging is “dominated by discourses of deficit, disease, intervention, and management wherein the elderly are constructed as a surplus population that drains upon the ‘productive’ members of society” (p. 169). This critique certainly isn’t novel, but it summarized many of my frustrations with the literature that I had read for an undergraduate research project on older immigrants.  I chose to examine one of the previously identified ‘problems’ facing older adults, loneliness, with the aim of documenting a variety of perspectives and experiences.

The negative framing of older adults is taken to the next level for older immigrants—in addition to declining health, increasing dependency, and the other issues associated with aging, foreign-born older adults are generally portrayed by researchers as facing challenges in every area of life, including language, culture, and financial concerns. There is little to no discussion of agency or resiliency, just a seemingly endless list of problems and challenges. In my interviews, I was struck by how my participants’ experiences did not match well with the literature. Certainly, many of my participants faced challenges related to language, culture, health, social connectedness, interpersonal relationships, and more—but a large part of their stories centered on how they responded to these challenges in ways that displayed their creativity and agency. In my interviews, I saw the richness of my participants’ lived experiences, which were not reflected in the literature, which was overwhelmingly focused on problems.

Take, for example, language. Many of my participants talked about language barriers and the difficulties they faced in learning a new language, especially at an older age. Limited English proficiency impacted communication and contributed to social isolation. It also affected employment options and the ability to carry out daily tasks. One interviewee, Zara, a refugee from Asia, detailed her difficulty in making a medical appointment:

“That [medical] appointment …[was] very bad for me… Not speak English, not have car, not have address, not have many things… the clinic name is difficult for me…. I go outside and sit there… [wait for] the bus, [and] another [to] come to this clinic, very bad for me. Miss appointment…Yeah, very bad… appointment, hospital, doctor, prescription.”

Even when faced with language-based challenges, however, many participants found ways to overcome them. Many participants took English as a Second Language classes; some pursued other strategies. These included using technology such as Google Translate for signs and menus, meeting with friends to practice English, and learning to get by through pictures or hand gestures. One participant shared:

“I talk little English [but]  I want to learn more. And when I need something to the grocery store or some markets, I talk with them, sometime she know, he know, and sometime maybe don’t know [laughs]. Yeah. If I need to…say for some people, and those people don’t know me, I sometime draw… some things I need, and show them, and she understand or he understand and get me those things.”

Another participant, Hassan, a refugee and late-life migrant from Asia, talked about how he initially found it difficult to remember new vocabulary despite frequently attending ESL classes:

“After my [ESL] class I go to study and then after one day, two days I forgot. Everything. I try, I try, another day, another week, another…I think two months, three months. I don’t understand…”

Several interviewees talked about the frustrations of learning a language at an older age, including difficulty with memory. However, this participant was able to draw on previous life experience in order to develop a strategy to improve his proficiency. He explained:

“I use to play soccer when I was young… I had good fitness… So I remember, maybe one year I quit to play soccer, and I come back, we make [a] team. And I come back to play with my friends. I got a problem in my muscles. … the first one minute, I got the problem, I sit beside the goalkeeper… And then, I ask my friend, he’s a professional player, soccer player. I told him, that happened to me. He say, that [is] natural because you don’t exercise, you should be [doing regular] exercise like marathon, for short distance. Five minutes, and then next day he say make exercise ten minutes, third day it’s fifteen minutes, every day plus five minutes…  I did that, I got my fitness again. I remember that in my class about my brain, my memory… There are one hundred questions. I divided one hundred by ten, it’s ten questions, so every morning I study only ten questions with answers. I feel good, I feel good.” 

It is important to center these instances of creativity and resilience to reframe narratives about older immigrants, and older adults more generally. It is true that aging tends to bring about changes in health, and that the combination of aging and immigration yields unique challenges such as language barriers and the need to adjust to cultural differences. However, older adults are not passive victims; they respond to these challenges and often overcome them. If we leave out this crucial part of the story, we miss how aging can be a time of opportunity and growth rather than a period of decline.

              More research and media coverage should feature positive aspects of aging. For the older immigrants in my study, the process of growing older was deeply embedded within family contexts. Many interviewees were grandparents and strived to pass on their cultural heritage, including foods, traditions, and language, to the next generation. In other words, older immigrants often serve as the keepers of tradition, family history, and culture for their families and possibly even communities. Elsa, an immigrant from Europe, talked excitedly about the joys of grandparenthood:

“I love being a mother. I love being a grandmother. Grandma is awesome. You know. Being a grandma is absolutely awesome. Well it’s like you have a brand new life that teaches you things that you once knew and you somehow forgot because you grew up. You know. And it’s like, hey, I used to do this, you know, or hmm, let me see what mischief I can get you into, Grandma is with you so no worries.”

Another participant, Jung-ho, an immigrant from Asia, discussed the benefits of multigenerational living, as his household includes his parents as well as his own family:

“I see my daughter and I see the relation she has with her grandparents and I wonder if I lived in a different city far away, she would not have been able to grow up with that. And so, that’s been the biggest positive. I mean of course there’s the obvious, the wisdom that comes from having your parents, just that you can talk to everyday, but definitely watching my daughter, that’s the best part. “

In addition to the family, religious communities were another area in which older immigrants were able to take on important roles. Sonya, an immigrant from South America, explained:

“I’m one of the elders for this church and for the Hispanic community. I have lived here a long time and I am older, I have many kids who have been here, so they look at me and say, how have you done this… as their kids grow and their challenges grow… and they say, how do you do it, and I say, with God’s help, that’s the only way.”

Old age is associated with respect and elders are afforded a place of honor within families in many cultures. This is very similar to the position of elders within indigenous populations, as described by Sandy Grande (2018). Grande talks about how incorporating indigenous perspectives on aging can challenge how researchers approach the topic and perhaps eventually help change public views about older adults. What would our society look like if we viewed older adults as an invaluable resource? What if instead of viewing older adults as burdens and focusing on health decline, we focused on what they can still contribute to society as keepers of tradition and knowledge?

              Methodology is a key reason why the negative, problem-centered discourse about older adults (and older immigrants) persists in academic literature. The dominant methodology in social science research on older adults is quantitative, including the use of large surveys and datasets. This research method often misses many of the nuances and complexities of experiences. Surveys are necessarily limited in terms of how many and which questions are asked. There is no opportunity for the follow-up or probing questions that typically occur in a qualitative interview. For example, if I had not asked Hassan to elaborate on his learning strategy, I would have categorized his experience quite differently, centering the challenges he has faced instead of how he responded to them. Doing interviews gave participants the space to discuss their experiences in their own terms. I initially started the project to explore issues of social isolation and loneliness, but the interviews often went in very different directions. I often did not ask about interactions with family or responses to challenges; participants raised these topics themselves. Many quantitative studies of older adults focus on documenting health problems or other issues; these are important issues that need to be addressed but it ends up contributing to and reinforcing problem-centered views on aging. More researchers should adopt a critical, feminist perspective in which participants’ worldviews and concerns are centered, and studies are developed in communication with the community being researched. The approach of ‘scholar-activism’ appears promising- it is crucial to connect research with accomplishing social change and addressing issues of injustice (see Anya Stranger’s (2022) Incarcerated Resistance: How Identity, Gender, and Privilege Shape the Experiences of America’s Nonviolent Activists as an example).

              Overall, the key takeaway from this article is that we need to become more conscious of how taken-for-granted beliefs impact how groups such as older adults are treated in society. The current framing of older adults has real impacts, including the perpetuation of ageism. It also affects the development of policy and proposed interventions to address the expected ‘crises’ associated with an aging population. Everyone from the general public to media professionals to researchers has a responsibility to challenge the status quo once it becomes harmful. One of the things that drew me to sociology was the ability of the discipline to help explain and de-mystify the social world around us. Sociology offers a lens through which to evaluate society critically and uncover the ways in which structures and individual experiences interact. As part of socialization, members of a society are encouraged to accept the status-quo, including beliefs and stereotypes about certain groups. While sociology makes us more aware of these hidden narratives, it is important to point out that there are many unquestioned assumptions within the discipline that scholars should be aware of and actively resist. For example, consider how research on aging has contributed to beliefs that aging is a period of decline. This is particularly true when looking at specific groups of older adults, such as older immigrants; much of the research on this group focuses almost exclusively on challenges. Incorporating stories of resilience, agency, and ingenuity in media reports or research articles can go a long way towards changing perceptions about aging.