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The Truth About Older Consumers: Diversity

Rachel Dornhelm March 19, 2018
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The nation’s burgeoning older population is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, an important reality for those who serve older Americans.

If you take your cue from pop culture, you might conclude that the typical older adult is a white, middle class product of the U.S. suburbs that cropped up after World War II.

Yet that view is increasingly off the mark. America’s senior population far more racially, ethnically and culturally diverse than the stereotype. And it is becoming more so with each passing day.

Immigration trends, along with birthrates among different groups, are driving the change, which has implications for policymakers and all who serve the older population. Today, one in five older adults in the United States is a person of color. By 2040, one out of three elders will identify as non-white.

“Some of [the shift] is people who came to the United States when they were relatively young, as young workers and young adults. Some is older adults who have emigrated to be with their children,” said Andrew Scharlach, the Eugene and Rose Kleiner Professor of Aging at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare.

Nationwide, the number of older Latinos is projected to increase from 3.7 million today to 19.9 million in 2060, according to AARP. Similarly, the number of black Americans 65-plus will grow from 4.2 million today to 11.4 million in 2060. Those who identify as Asian, Native American and multiracial will also increase significantly in number.

For some parts of the country, the demographic shift is more pronounced than in others. In 2014 in Hawaii, 60 percent of adults 65-plus were Asian Pacific Islander. Sixty percent of the older population in Washington D.C. was black. In California, the majority of older adults are projected to be people of color by 2040.

Health disparities provide an important reason to recognize the diversity among older Americans. People of color are likely to have experienced lifelong stressors, including institutional racism and inequitable access to care, that can shorten their lifespans, Scharlach points out.

“Mortality historically has been so high among Latino, African-Americans and Native Americans. Now more people living long enough to be older changes the demographics,” he said.

Understanding the needs of this more diverse population is key for those serving older adults. For one, staff may need new language proficiencies. They might have to build relationships with new communities. In some cases, organizations may need to consider whole new approaches to aging services.

“So many of our institutions are predicated on serving individuals, and many communities of color and immigrants communities are more based in family and community and sometimes there is a misfit with services and goals,” said Scharlach.

Also, cultural differences put a premium on better communication. The best way to learn what a community needs, is to ask, Scharlach said. He gives the example of a foundation that wanted to build a senior center in a low income, primarily Latino community.

“In talking to individuals, it became crystal clear they didn’t want a senior center, they wanted improvements in the existing community center that was run down so everybody could use it,” said Scharlach. “That’s not something anybody would have realized from the outside, but when you go in and talk to people it became very clear.”

That more complete picture goes beyond racial and ethnic identities. The older population is also growing in diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Society on Aging found there are 2.7 million LGBT individuals over 50. By 2030, the number of LGBT older adults is expected to double to 5 million.

Yet while institutions are starting to change, many are predicated on heterosexual couples who are married with adult children. This affects policies such as who is entitled to family leave to care for a loved one and who is allowed to see elders during visiting hours.

Tim Johnston, director of National Projects at SAGE, an advocacy and service organization for LGBT elders, said creating inclusive spaces is not just about older LGBT adults. “It’s also about [residents’] children and visitors and making sure that they feel welcome in that environment,” he said.

Rachel Dornhelm

Rachel Dornhelm has worked in public radio for over 15 years. Her stories have aired on APM's Marketplace, NPR's Morning Edition and other outlets. She is currently working towards her Master of Social Work, with a concentration in aging.

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