Miami elderly find comfort in a storm at Miami Jewish Health

Instead of evacuating for Hurricane Irma, Miami Jewish Health is at full capacity as Hurricane Irma heads toward South Florida. Residents and guests have all the comforts of home, and then some, at the largest nursing home in the southeast that al

Instead of evacuating for Hurricane Irma, Miami Jewish Health is at full capacity as Hurricane Irma heads toward South Florida. Residents and guests have all the comforts of home, and then some, at the largest nursing home in the southeast that al

A longstanding popularity with snowbirds and retirees has helped make Florida one of the grayest states in the country.

Overall, one in five residents here is 65 and older, a percentage higher than any other state. And across South Florida’s three most populous counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — the number of residents 75 and up has reached roughly half a million people.

Now, a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the important role that immigrants are playing in the state’s senior population.

According to the report, 21.2% of Florida’s 65-and-over population is foreign-born, a figure that’s significantly higher than the U.S. average of 13.1%. At a little over 800,000, the total number of immigrant adults older than 65 in Florida is second only to California’s 1.6 million.

The older foreign-born are also more likely to be living in poverty than the older native-born, according to the study, even though both groups have similar labor force participation rates.

And as far as their geographic distribution is concerned, most older foreign-born residents live in and around major cities. The combined Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metro area ranks third in the nation, behind the New York and Los Angeles areas, with almost 475,000 foreign-born seniors. Also inside the top 25 major metropolitan areas are the Tampa Bay region (76,517 foreign-born seniors) and the Orlando area (60,732).


Teri Busse Arvesu leads Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s Initiative on Aging, an operation that raises awareness of the array of health and wellness services available to older county residents. On a recent Saturday morning, Arvesu put together a health and resource fair (presenters ranged from county officials and home health care companies to folks offering cognitive tests).

The event took place next to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, a Catholic church with sweeping views of Biscayne Bay, and whose parish members are, by an overwhelming margin, folks with Latin American immigrant backgrounds.

At the health fair, Arvesu explained that direct, in-person outreach is critical when it comes to making sure the county’s older residents learn about and take advantage of programs that can make their lives better, such as nutritional programs or low-income senior housing projects.

“You have got to go to them,” she said. “You gotta show up, and really sit with seniors.”

That principle, she explained, was doubly true for foreign-born residents. That’s why the health fair was brought to the community of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity (or the Ermita de la Caridad, as it’s more commonly referred to in Spanish). Arvesu said it was important that one of the church’s two pastors, the Rev. Fernando Hería, spoke at the event.

“It’s important to have someone people trust,” she said.

Leyanee Perez, a registered dietitian, was also on hand at the health fair. She explained some of the challenges that the older foreign-born population faces.

“I think they have a lot of disadvantages. There’s the language barrier, but also the fact that they don’t know how to navigate the system. They don’t know what resources there are, what opportunities there are,” she said. “They are more vulnerable than other people who are American.”

Cultural traditions around who dispenses care are also a factor.

“There are different perceptions of how you take care of the elderly depending on your culture. Hispanics make up about two thirds of seniors in the county. And in their countries, the family takes care of them. But it’s different here,” said Arvesu. “That’s why we do so much outreach.”

Older immigrants who are undocumented have to overcome even bigger obstacles. In Florida, the size of that population hovers around 90,000 people.

Complicating those residents’ futures are their health outlooks. By and large, undocumented seniors lack health insurance, which means most turn to free community health centers that are ultimately ill-equipped to provide extensive care. And while undocumented seniors are affected by the same chronic issues that many in their age group experience, they also have to contend with the adverse effects of spending decades working in physically difficult conditions.

“There’s going to be a huge need to think about what kind of care folks need, what kind of policies best allow us to take care of folks who have been here in many cases for multiple decades and have contributed through their work and paid taxes,” said Eric Figueroa, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “So I think that’s going to be a big issue.”

Figueroa also added that all seniors in the US, regardless of their immigration status, could see their quality of life be impacted by immigration policy.

“As the US population ages, there’s a huge demand for care providers and ironically, many immigrants are the ones who end up providing that care. […] What kind of immigration policy can we have in place to make sure we have enough caregivers in the future? I think that will be another interesting thing to look at.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a bilingual reporter at the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. He is also a Report for America corps member. Lautaro Grinspan es un periodista bilingüe de el Nuevo Herald y del Miami Herald, así como miembro de Report for America.

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