Elderly Immigrant Health Deteriorating Due to ‘Health Research Gap,’ Experts Say

Health care worker helping an elderly man

Many would agree that the state of healthcare in the U.S. is in decline, but older immigrants in rural areas may be at an increased risk for receiving improper care, experts say.

In 2016, Mexican individuals accounted for approximately 26% of immigrants in the United States, making them by far the largest foreign-born group in the country. Micaela Rios, for example, is a 64-year-old Mexican immigrant, settling in rural western Kansas about 20 years ago. After working a challenging job in a meatpacking plant packing beef in wet, cold conditions, she developed a number of health conditions, including high blood pressure and arthritis. She also had a heart attack when she was 60 years old.

Despite Rios’ declining health, she says she’s just one of many immigrants facing similar conditions. Though she hopes to retire once Medicare kicks in, it’s not quite as easy as walking in the door. While Rios said that most of her health providers do have Spanish-speaking staff, the language barrier still presents itself as an issue for certain specialists. Not only that, but many immigrants living in rural communities lack access to specialists because they only visit these areas once a month.

“Rios is among a group whose health care needs are often overlooked — older immigrants and refugees in rural communities. Little research has been conducted on this population nationally; the vast majority of immigrants and refugees are younger and live in urban areas. But case studies show that although their needs vary considerably, older rural immigrants commonly face barriers of language and culture as they try to navigate a complex medical system and access transportation,” writes Beth Baker.

As mentioned, transportation — or lack thereof — is also one of the most common barrier to health care access for older immigrants in rural areas. Americans say they spend an average of 87 minutes a day in their cars, but many of those in rural areas have to drive much longer to reach the facilities specializing in the type of care they need. Or, they may not have a vehicle or valid license.

For other immigrants, oral health is severely lacking. According to an AACD survey, virtually all adults (99.7%) surveyed believe a healthy smile is socially important, but it’s medically important as well. A small rural community of Karen (pronounced kuh-REN) from Thailand and Burma resettled in Vesta, Georgia, and experts say that elderly members of the community suffer from poor oral health as a result of chewing betel nut, which blackens the teeth. Plus, tooth decay is 20 times more common than diabetes and five times more common than childhood asthma, and many households routinely drink large amounts of soda — as a result, childhood obesity is “surging.”

Finally, for immigrants of various ethnicities, elderly members seeking health care is almost considered a weakness, as they don’t want to be considered a “burden,” especially on their children. That’s why far too many wait until their symptoms have progressed to the point where they have no choice but to see a doctor.

When all is said and done, experts say that more research is essential to provide elderly immigrants with the health care they deserve. Take it from doctoral candidate at UCLA School of Nursing, Hafifa Siddiq, who has also conducted extensive research with refugee women over the age of 50.

“There’s a need for the medical community to have an increased understanding of this population’s needs so that we may be able to better address them,” she said. “There is a lot that we still need to understand about refugees, their health, and their health behaviors.”

For more information, visit Next Avenue, a public journalism service that’s currently doing a series entitled Strengthening Rural Health Care for Older Adults, the production of which is supported by the John A. Hartford Foundation.

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