Aging Between Two Worlds -- Hispanic, Old and Poor on the Texas Border

Aging Between Two Worlds -- Hispanic, Old and Poor on the Texas Border

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Photo: Guadalupe Tobias with her daughter Cristel.

First of two articles.

Tambien En Español BROWNSVILLE, Texas--Guadalupe Tobias did not live a drastic change when she emigrated to South Texas more than four decades ago and decided to take root in one of the poorest regions of the United States. There she has lived for most of her 75 years.

As a young woman, Tobias was one of the thousands of Mexican laborers crossing into the U.S. to work in "la labor," picking crops in the Rio Grande Valley and returned to their villages at the end of the season until the next harvest time.

Active Aging On the Border

Herminia Becerra knows well what poverty is. In her youth, looking for a better life, she emigrated from a ranch in northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, to the border city of Brownsville, Texas. Now, about to turn 84, she said her early upbringing in Mexico may be helping her to maintain her health and keep her mind sharp.

“Medicare reported this week that I just spent $117 on medical care during all the 2012," Becerra declared proudly. She added, "I never go to the doctor because I don’t get sick even in winter, despite my loving to walk barefoot in the cold."

Becerra believes the secret of her health is in maintaining the customs of her early years in Mexico. "The truth is that we grew up eating peppers, corn masa, nopales [cactus] and hen cooked in broth with rice, quelites [leafy greens], purslane [an herb] and atole [corn porriage].”

She added, “And we always use remedies to heal through herbs, such as bisbirinda, peppermint, aloe and mugwort, as well as hive honey, garlic and oregano. In that way I never got sick since I was a little girl."

Becerra is called "the queen of politicking" in that border region because during political campaigns she works hard—some say as a paid campaign promoter--to get out the vote among Hispanics and proselytizes for candidates.

Leading demonstrations along busy streets or in public buildings keeps her physically active. Becerra is well known and also very criticized for her display of political propaganda, but she says that she is doing it only for her passion to help Hispanics.

"I receive over a hundred phone calls a day from people who ask me for help," she said.

Widowed since 1984, and with six children, she now lives on a $798 monthly pension that her husband left. Becerra recalled, "We both worked hard in the fields, and we planted and harvested cotton, corn, beans and peppers in the Rio Grande Valley, and peaches and grapes in California, Ohio and Oregon."

However, most older Texas Hispanics do not share Becerra’s story of active aging. Because Latino elders are the fastest-growing senior population, they represent a future challenge for the state in terms of elder health.

-- Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez

One day Tobias decided to move to San Juan, a town in Hidalgo County, where her mother already resided. She arrived with her oldest children and easily adapted to the place. "Here, I kept speaking Spanish like everyone else, eating Mexican food and working in the field," she said.

In those distant days of her farmwork, Tobias recalls carrying large buckets packed with fruit on her shoulders; bending for long hours engrafting orange trees to promote production; or picking onions, cucumbers or cantaloupes.

Tobias also speaks of walking long distances to collect food for low-income families from the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program for her still-young children.

“No Worries”—Despite Illnesses, Low Income

However, more than 40 years after her arrival in the U.S., Tobias said, "I feel good, I'm very happy with my 12 children, and I have no worries at all." She said this despite having diabetes, requiring a daily dose of insulin injections; having a heart pacemaker; and living with the effects of a spine injury.

Tobias studied until the third grade. She never had medical insurance benefits during her youth. Now, she has health services from Medicare and Medicaid and manages living on Social Security income of $698 monthly.

A few years ago, Tobias sold her house, and now her daughters take turns hosting her a month or two at a time. "That way, I enjoy my 36 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren directly," she said festively. She confesses that she still loves to eat spicy Mexican food and watching soap operas.

Tobias doesn’t hide her enthusiasm when she mentioned that next July her family "will all gather for my youngest granddaughter’s Quinceañera,” or 15th birthday, a significant occasion in Hispanic culture. She added, “My daughters, who live in Chicago, Washington and North Carolina, will come."

Tobias is one of the millions of older Hispanics in the U.S. who, despite their economic disadvantage, education and often multiple chronic health conditions, are expected to have a longer life than whites and blacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources.

Official figures are compelling. Hispanics who reach age 65 live to age 85 on average, the highest life expectancy, three years more than any other population group. In comparison, whites live to 78.8 years and African Americans live to 74.7 years. And Latinas who turned 65 in 2010, are expected to live to age 89, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

“Hispanic Paradox”

Such discrepancies between Latinos’ unfavorable socioecnomic conditions and increased life expectancy has been called the "Hispanic paradox" by Kyriakos Markides, director of the Division of Science and Socio-medical studies professor on aging of the Medical Division of the University of Texas in Galveston.

Markides believes immigrants come to the U.S. more physically fit to begin with and with healthy diets, and usually do not smoke or are light smokers besides. Many also end up doing physically demanding work. And as they remain in this country, they acquire less healthy habits leading to conditions, such as obesity and diabetes.

"While they get older here, they start having more health problems and disabilities,” Markides said. “Also, when their children reach middle age, even if they are more educated than their parents, may be more obese and diabetic than their parents."

Markides, who has researched the “mixed picture” of this paradox phenomenon since 1976, argues that resarchers need to look beyond "cold data," such as to social and cultural factors.

In some case, he noted, "We see Latinos or Mexican people living in neighborhoods that are densely Hispanic, and they are getting more benefits from it, despite being poor.” That’s because in more traditional cultures “they are immersed in their food, language, the value of family, their church, more communication, having a purpose in life and a sense of community."

According to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services of Texas, poverty rates among elderly African Americans and Hispanics is 2.5 times higher than that of whites. In the last 10 years, the number of elders living in poverty in Central Texas increased by 42 percent, according the U.S. Census.

Some researchers suggest that factors related to Hispanic poverty may actually contribute to longer life expectancy among Latinos. For example, they say, lack of a vehicle makes them walk more; having less money may reduced their consumption of alcohol and tobacco; living in large family groups might lead to healthier diets for many, such as beans and rice, fresh vegetables and less red meat.

Challenges of Hispanic "Boom"

Like the rest of the United States, elderly Hispanics in Texas also live longer than whites and blacks, but with more chronic diseases and ailments in their final years. They also lack sufficient health insurance, pension coverage and savings for their old age.

Hispanics currently represent 38 percent of the Texas population, a proportion predicted to boom by 2020 and outnumber whites, according to demographic forecasts.

"Because of the population growth, immigration and the geography of the state, we expect a new [demographic] boom in the near future," said Jacqueline Angel, a sociologist at the University of Texas (UT), Austin’s Population Research Center.

Angel, a professor at UT’s LBJ School Center for Health and Social Policy, who focuses on Latino aging and health, believes the lack of health insurance among Hispanics will be a great challenge for Texas.

"Many older Mexican-Americans are disproportionately poor and are at a disadvantage when the costs of health services are increasing,” she explained. “So they will require new alternatives and policies to address the issue, especially along the Texas-Mexico border, where there are counties in which half of the population lives in poverty."

One major challenge, she emphasized, will be new policies on benefits and services coming as part of health care reform, and whether they will meet the growing demands of the most economically most destitute Hispanics.

In many cases, older Hispanics receive care within their families, either by cultural tradition or because they can’t afford the costs of a nursing home. They also frequently don’t have sufficient coverage for medical care or prescriptions, she said.

"Other challenges that Texas may confront would be the Hispanic immigrants, whose health declines as they age in the United States, along with the large number of Latinos with inadequate health coverage," she said.

17.5 million Latino Elders by 2050

Nationally, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging, the populations of Hispanics ages 65 or older will almost triple to 8.6 million by 2030—and double again to 17.5 million by 2050. Among them, there will be a dramatic increase among Latinos 85 and older, those most apt to face difficult health problems and isolation.

Furthermore, although Latinos tend to have lower rates of cancer than whites, they do have a high incidence of diabetes, twice as much as non-Hispanic whites, plus a substantial risk of getting Alzheimer, which could become a future health priority, according to a report by the National Alliance for Hispanic Health (NAHH).

Despite this impending reality, Latinos in the United States are still "in denial," said Fernando Torres-Gil, director of research policy on aging at the University of California Los Angeles.

Torres-Gil, who headed the U.S. Administration in the first Clinton Administration, said that aging Latinos need to face their health challenges in order to fully enjoy the benefits that increased longevity can bring.

Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez wrote this article for HuffVoces, as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a project of the Gerontological Society of America and Edit This Entry