Latino Elderly Discuss Access to Health & Community Services at RIC Gerontology Conference

From left, Gertrudis Mirande, Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan, Julieta Sanchez and Marta Morrogh-Bernard. (Francisco BaquƩ, not shown.)

From left, Gertrudis Mirande, Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan, Julieta Sanchez and Marta Morrogh-Bernard. (Francisco BaquƩ, not shown.)


On April 23 Rhode Island College’s Gerontology Program, together with the Department of Modern Languages, held a conference to address the unique needs of the Latino elderly with a focus on the most effective ways to educate this rapidly growing demographic about health and community services.

“Because of language barriers, immigration status and other factors, Latino elders and their families may be uncertain about what assistance is available to them and how to access it,” said Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of RIC’s Gerontology Program Rachel Filinson.

The conference opened with a panel of four elders aged 65 and older – natives of Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Guatemala. RIC alumna Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan ’08, producer of the Rhode Island Spanish radio station Poder 110 and former coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Elderly Affairs’ Center for Diversity, moderated the discussion.

Panelist Marta Morrogh-Bernard, who lives in a high-rise for low-income elderly, most of whom are Hispanic, said, “Only two of the residents in the high-rise speak English – the maintenance man and myself – and I am the official translator. The residents ask me to help them write letters and to fill out paperwork, such as a consent form or a lease or a health insurance form. I go with them to court to interpret. I help them prepare for the citizenship interview. I go with them to the immigration office and to their doctors appointments.”

Though Morrogh-Bernard volunteers her services free of charge, she said she is only one person serving many, which can be daunting. She said she would like to see more Spanish interpreters at local and state agencies and to see students volunteer to work with the elderly.

An audience member asked if the elderly are seeking English-as-a-second-language (ESL) training. The response was that ESL is not an option for many elders, because they are designed for people who can read and write in their own tongue. For many Latino elderly there is the issue of illiteracy. Thus, their primary source of information about health and community services is the radio station Poder 110.

Immigrant status is another barrier for the elderly, said moderator Rodriguez-Masjoan. “The undocumented often do not feel they have a right to local and state services,” she said. 

To help clarify misconceptions, three informational sessions were held, following the panel discussion:

1) How to access information through the 2-1-1 resource center, led by Call Specialist Jennifer Ortega-Perez; 

2) Adult day care as a resource for Latino families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, facilitated by Program Director of the Rhode Island Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association Marge Angilly; Director of the Elmwood Adult Day Health Care Center Joanne O’Day; and two social workers from the same Elmwood center Katherine Peralta and Monica Alzate; and

3) The social isolation of Hispanic elders in Rhode Island, facilitated by Elder Outreach Coordinator of Luis Jusino.

Representatives of 2-1-1 acknowledged that spreading the message about their own comprehensive information and referral service has not been very successful through print media. They intend to take the company RV to Hispanic community events and festivals to meet directly with the elderly. They would also like to become more partnership oriented, working with shelters, community action programs and neighborhood programs.