Latino Elders and Mental Health: Talk to Me… in Spanish

A swelling Latino population in California has meant rising numbers of Latino elders and, with them, a growing movement to support their mental health needs.

Yet the movement faces a huge obstacle: Latinos don’t typically seek out help for behavioral health concerns.

“In our culture we have an unspoken attitude that you’re supposed to take care of your own problems,” says Patricia Ortiz, the wellness & mental health senior associate for the Alliance on Aging.

The Alliance, a long-respected aging agency in Monterey County, is responding to this growing need by expanding its senior peer counseling program to target the county’s rapidly growing Latino senior population.

“Last year, for the first time, we did a completely separate (senior peer counselor) training in Spanish for Spanish-speakers,” says Sheryl Zika, director of wellness and mental health.

Senior peer counselors typically meet older adults once a week for 10 weeks to discuss pressing concerns of culture, health, family and loss.

While Latino seniors face the universal challenges of aging – health failures, the death of family, transportation woes, and a seemingly constant stream of grief – they also face unique cultural challenges: dwindling family ties and difficulties fitting into Anglo society.

While Anglos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans have been the predominant recipients of services by the Alliance’s senior peer counselors, the demographics are changing fast.

“Now we’re at about 50-50 Latino and non-Latino,” says Zika.

The latest figures show that nearly 57% of Monterey County’s 430,000 residents are Latino.

Besides individual counseling, the Alliance also holds a handful of weekly group sessions, largely in the county’s southern cities like Soledad, Gonzales and Greenfield. Mostly Latino, the groups offer support in hard to access rural areas.

Of the eight older adults gathered inside a community room at Soledad Senior Apartments for one recent session, all but one is Latino.

Ortiz moderates the group, seamlessly translating the discussion from Spanish to English and back. The weekly gathering feels unified and supportive – even loving.

With alarming speed – and a palpable need to talk about their deepest sources of pain – the discussion turns from a discussion of “pain” and its benefits to an intense discussion of death, family loss and grief.

One by one they list the deaths in their families – a husband, two sons, a brother, a sister, a sister-in-law, another brother – and the cumulative effect would be overwhelming if not for the presence of the group itself, and the calming discussion to follow.

The Alliance launched its senior peer counseling services in the late 1990’s for peninsula cities surrounding Monterey.

In 2008, with a grant from the Mental Health Services Act, the program expanded into the Salinas Valley and its dense Latino population. Two years ago it expanded further into rural south county.

Today the Alliance has 40 senior peer counselors who have completed its intensive 40-hour training.

Emily P. Brito is one of them. And she was once a client herself.

The low point in Brito’s life occurred when she had trouble walking straight, and her foot wouldn’t depress the brake pedal in her car. Diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, on her 75th birthday her driver’s license was taken away and with it, her freedom.

Soon after, when her husband died of lung cancer, she felt like her world was caving in.

Then Brito remembered a critical local resource – the Alliance on Aging – which she had formerly supported financially. After an evaluation, a peer counselor visited her weekly at home.

“That helped me a lot because I was able to talk,” says Brito, hesitant to burden her own children with her woes. “I was able to let out my feelings.”

Brito was so moved by the peer mentoring process she became a counselor herself, learning a broad range of new skills that helped her connect with other Latino seniors, bridging the gap between social isolation and social connection.

“A lot of what we do in our training is ‘How do you connect with your client?’” says Brito.

And the counseling program has put her own aging process in perspective.

“After listening to other people’s problems I would come home and say ‘Dear god, I don’t have problems compared to other people’s problems.’”

Meanwhile, the counseling process has become far more than problem-solving. Serving others has enriched Brito’s life experiences.

“It’s become something really beautiful.”

The Alliance’s peer counselors support about 600 seniors annually. Clients must be 55, with the counselors themselves at least 50 years old. To encourage more participation, the Alliance has lowered its minimum age for Latino counselors to 40.

Last year, the Alliance served 5,500 older adult residents with its various services. Besides senior peer counseling, it also offers advice on wellness, taxes, Medicare, housing, elder abuse. It also directs seniors to discount programs for food and utilities.

In today’s rapidly aging American society – 10,000 people turn 65 each day – Zika notices another growing trend.

“We’re getting more ‘younger’ elders,” she says. “The Boomers are coming on board.”

In fact, while most senior peer counselor visit clients where they live – at home, assisted living, or skilled nursing – 60-ish Baby Boomers are often more comfortable visiting the Alliance’s office, because they still live in their home yet lack privacy there.

In the training, peer counselors learn about the critical role pain plays in everyday life.

“We’re in so much pain and sadness we can’t see things clearly,” says Brito. “I learned I can help others just by listening to their stories.”

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