Minnesota’s lonely elders


Minnesota African Women’s Association executive talks about elders’ mental health in Minnesota

“There is a problem especially when it comes to our African elderly senior citizens,” said Nyango Melissa Nambangi, executive director, Minnesota African Women’s Association (MAWA) at the Dakota County African Mental Health Summit. “Especially those who come to this country to see their children, and then you have the ones that come because they are refugees.”

Many have left their societies back home and what they have there is not in existence in places like Minnesota. Back in their home countries, they have the support of their family members. “When they don’t have family members around them, it causes a lot of sadness,” said Nambangi.

Transportation for some is a major factor that keeps many indoors and it affects their health. Many of them do not drive. They come from societies where they do not need much transportation. However, abroad is different. If they want to go somewhere, they have to take a bus, a cab or someone takes to go there.

They came to a country where they need a ride to go somewhere. “So they are stuck at home and causes a whole lot of mental problems,” said Nambangi.

“Secondly, the presence of grandchildren, which did a lot to elevate their spirits, is missing here. You have kids here that you have to take to day care. If they come to visit their children and if there are no young children to take care of, they are very bored.”

For many elders, the children they come to visit are busy going to work, going to school, or finding jobs. They hardly see them and they leave them at home to watch television – that probably does not interest them. It is a very serious problem since they cannot watch television the whole day, said Nambangi.

“There is isolation, the sadness, they want to stay with their children, they want to go back home,” said Nambangi. “But, they are caught in the middle not knowing exactly what to do.”

Elders who resettle in Minnesota as refugees are also facing a very difficult situation trying to learn the language when they have already 50 or 65 years of age. Authorities expect many of these elderly refugees to learn the English language, the new way of life in the U.S., and accept a culture that is very different from the one in their country of origin.

According to Nambangi, all of these problems accumulate to “acculturative stress,” that is also a mental health issue. In their new adopted country, many of these elderly immigrants are expected to adapt to the sudden cultural change, and learn a new language. Many did not attend school back home.

Some are normally instructed to “go and see a social worker,” when they don’t even know what “social worker” means, or they are told to call ahead of an appointment when they are not used to it. The other problem elders face is distance – some are not in a walking distance to seek help. They depend on someone to give them a ride or take them to an appointment.

“They have passed the age of finding a regular job, so they are totally dependent on whatever they can get from the state,” said Nambangi. This is not a happy situation for many immigrant elders. At their age in their countries, they be take care of their grandchildren, or relax under the trees with friends and neighbors.

However, in Minnesota, the weather is not favorable for them. They have to deal with the terrible cold. Their social contacts and connections are also missing for many of these seniors. Some have to spend days at home before attending a social function where they could meet other elders.

The busy lives of many African working families prevent them from taking care or paying attention to the needs of their elderly parents or relatives.

“Sitting and chatting with your children, if you’re lucky to have one, can help,” said Nambangi. “But, your children come home tired, they are rushing to eat, they are rushing to go to work, rushing to a new job or getting another.”

Medical help comes from an American perspective where seniors or elderly parents are been sent to nursing homes. There lies the differences – elders from African countries don’t spend their remaining years in nursing homes. They prefer staying at home with their children and taking caring of their grandchildren, going to their gardens in the morning and attending functions and activities for elders.

“In our culture, it is an insult to take your parent and put them in an old people’s home,” said Nambangi. “Other people will ask if you are not able to care of your parent.”

For many immigrant families, it is difficult to give up going to school or work to take care of their elders. Sitting the whole day watching TV without doing anything, can also raise the stress factors for them, according to the MAWA executive.

Nevertheless, there is now some awareness among medical practitioners on how to help immigrant elders. Many of these elders suffer abuses that are unreported, according to Nambangi, especially by their children who have taken to the new American culture and lifestyle. MAWA on many occasions has to intervene to help some elder women.

“We really cannot afford to forget our old people. We have to do everything because of that African connection,” said Nambangi. “We also need to know that because of our African cultures – most of us are very African in the way we work.”

The MAWA executive said her organization is always open and willing to take calls at anytime to help elders in Minnesota. “So, even if it is not work time, even if it [is] weekend, or night, and there is somebody in dire need of the services that we provide, MAWA will take their call,” said Nambangi. “We are not going to abandon anybody because it is my day off. We don’t do that.”