Arab American Elders Facing the Rest of Their Lives Alone

Arab American Elders Facing the Rest of Their Lives Alone

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First of two articles. Read part two here.

EAST DEARBORN, Mich.--The Kennedy Center building on Bingham Street in East Dearborn is a nine-story residential site for low-income elders in the heart of the Detroit area’s Arab American community.

Although one might expect the center to be bustling with family members visiting the many older Arab Americans who occupy 78 of the building’s 117 units, my recent stop there instead suggested a story of isolation and neglect emblematic of the current state of affairs for Arab American elders.

Arab Americans constitute an emerging ethnic community trying to balance the old way of life in the motherland with the facts of life in the new world. Moral claims of respect for elders aside, most Arab Americans emigrated from states where aging is not an issue. Life expectancy in many Arab countries is at best only a couple of years more than the average retirement age in the United States.

Estranged from Family, But Independent

At the Kennedy Center, a woman in the traditional Islamic hijab arrived to visit her mother-in-law, who she said has to “face the rest of her life alone.” Lila, who did not provide her last name for publication, explained that her mother-in-law used to live with her family and helped raise her children.

Although Lila’s mother-in-law didn’t complain for years, she increasingly felt constrained by traditional expectations. With her social life largely limited to attending funerals or memorials, except for attending citizenship classes at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).

Then three years ago, said Lila, her mother-in-law “reached the end of her rope.” When she told her son she was going to ACCESS to find a place to live, Lila recalled, “My husband threatened to not see her or talk to her as long as he lives because she will bring shame to her family by allowing people to say that he is like the Americans, who send their parents to shelters.”

Since her mother-in-law moved, Lila has visited her against her husband’s will.
One of Lila’s children visits his grandmother secretly, as well. “She tells me that he brings her back to life when she sees him,” Lila added. She emphasized that her mother-in-law feels “she has her own space and she doesn’t regret her decision to leave.”

An Increasingly Pressing Issue

Amne Talab, the social services director at ACCESS, emphasized, “Our plate is overflowing with other pressing issues, such as refugees, new immigrants, legal, social, employment, health, mental health and emergency services.”

Talab continued, though, “The elders are becoming a pressing issue, as well.” That’s because many who benefit from health and other services are living longer here, eventually requiring eldercare services, she said.

Longevity for Arabs in the United States is about two years shorter than that of whites or non-Arabs, partly because Arab elders have high levels of chronic illness.

Talab is applying for a grant to establish a center that would host senior activities and services. But even without an exclusive program for elders, ACCESS and similar organizations, such as the Arab American and Chaldean Council, have something substantial to offer.

Social workers in Arab American community organizations there work with their counterparts in city agencies to access available services for elders. However, the benefits are not distributed equally for practical and cultural reasons.

Even though having government-subsidized residential centers in East Dearborn, such as Kennedy and the Freda Center, addresses part of elders’ needs, it also presents new challenges.

For example, the high illiteracy rate among Arab American elders, especially women, makes understanding the rules and communicating with management and providers very difficult.

Some elders violate rules by frequently babysitting their grandchildren. Others cook and do laundry for their kids in the senior developments. Center managers also complain of other infractions, such as receiving guests for sleepovers, using the hallways and balconies for storage, and misusing the available utilities.

Many of the elders are in poor health and have inadequate treatment for their ailments because they lack information about health services or preventive care.

Isolation Not Part of Normal Aging

The salient issue is social isolation is fed by infrequent visits from loved ones and feelings of guilt for being away from their families. Intensifying this problem is the tendency to view isolation as a normal stage of aging and not seeking help to deal with it.

“This kind of problem can be dealt with easily if there is someone to help elders understand the rules and learn about available health and mental health services,” said a non-Arab American social worker, who assists the elders in the low-income housing centers.

This social worker, who asked not to be identified, added, “Some problems can be solved with a simple translation or some orientation in Arabic, but no one is doing it.”

A health care provider, who conducts routine health screenings at the centers, commented, “A lot of the residents don’t bother to show up for some basic testing for their vital signs like blood pressure, heart rate and screening blood tests.”

She stressed, “Even the elders who do the tests often will dismiss the importance of conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, bone thinning and eye and ear problems.”

Religious and cultural differences leave some available programs out of reach for Arab American elders and stigmatize other activities. The city of Dearborn provides a wide range of recreational and entertainment services, such as swimming, cardiovascular work-outs, movies, dance, music, theater, card or board games and day trips.

But the Islamic code on dress and on mixing between genders prevents Arab American elders from participating in most activities. Social perceptions make attending a simple musical event or watching a movie with a group a source of embarrassment.

There is no shortage of sad stories of Arab American elders residing in senior housing. For some, isolation has meant dying alone, only to be found days later, or being defrauded and stripped of all their belongings and assets. Still more have lost their benefits because problems with their applications for assistance or lost important notifications being sent to their old address.

Even with such problems, these elders are in a better situation compared to those who do not make the move to independent living.

Part 2 will examine specials challenges for Arab women in America. This series is adapted from the story Mohamad Ozeir wrote for the Arab American News through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.