As Latinos Age, the Need for Spanish-Speaking Caretakers Grows

Nov 10, 2015

Luis and Miriam Sierra are originally from Colombia, but they’ve lived in New York City for decades. About ten years ago, Miriam began to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

It’s necessary to help her with everything: bathing her, dressing her, feeding her,” said her husband,  Luis Sierra. “It’s very hard.”

Latinos are the fastest growing group of people 65 and older in the U.S. today. And the number of elderly Latinos with dementia is growing, too. Already, there aren’t enough bilingual, bicultural services to go around. That means increasingly, Latinos are going to have to leave work and other responsibilities to care for ailing family members.

Luis Sierra was already retired when his wife started to need care. That’s not typically the case, said Caroline Gelman, a social worker who does research on Latinos and Alzheimer’s at Hunter College in New York.

“While most caregivers for other groups, particularly white groups, tend to be the spouse, in Latino populations, they often are adult children,” Gelman explained. “That means that they have many competing obligations: work, their own families, their own children.”

A Met Life study found that caregivers 50 and older who leave the work force to care for a family member lose about $300,000 in income and benefits over a lifetime. To keep working, caregivers need adult daycare for their relatives, counseling, and other services. But those often aren’t available in Spanish, Gelman says.

“The service doesn’t exist so people aren’t using it so they’re finding other ways of supplementing the care that they need,” Gelman said. “Then the policymakers can say, ‘See, they use their families. They don’t need this help.’”

That’s changing. Both the Alzheimer’s Association and the Latino Alzheimer’s Alliance are starting bilingual support groups and other programs across the country. That also saves the healthcare system money, because it’s cheaper to care for people in their own homes.

For the past two years, an in-home health care aide who speaks Spanish has come by the Sierras’ apartment every day. Luis Sierra that’s better than putting his wife in a nursing home. “It makes my wife happy to be surrounded by people telling her they love her,” Sierra said.

It’s hard to put a dollar value on that.