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April 8, 2009 > Elder Coalition: Community ambassadors serve immigrant seniors

Elder Coalition: Community ambassadors serve immigrant seniors

Submitted By Asha Chandra

Fremont was once a quiet enclave of white middle-class families. But as emerging technologies in Silicon Valley, coupled with the area's relative affordability, drew immigrants from around the globe, demographics began to shift.

Today, the area's original population is aging, with over 12 percent of residents over age 60. Almost half of residents are foreign-born and 57 percent speak a language other than English in their homes.

While many younger immigrants have assimilated, their parents and more recently arrived refugees are challenged by a language and system they don't understand. Fremont's senior population of 30,000 resembles a mini United Nations, with its own need for diplomacy and understanding between its many ethnic and faith groups.

As communities across the country seek new ways to improve the lives of seniors, Fremont and its Tri-City Elder Coalition - an affiliation of over 60 community, health and governmental agencies - has faced the added challenge of extreme cultural diversity. To address this need, Fremont's Human Services Department and its partner organizations developed the Community Ambassador Program for Seniors (CAPS), funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"The best way to develop a program," explains Suzanne Shenfil, Director of Human Services for the City of Fremont, "was to create an interactive model that engaged the many diverse groups that make up this community."

The CAPS program is a unique civic partnership between the Human Services Department and seven local cultural and faith-based organizations: Centerville Presbyterian Church, Muslim Support Network, Sikhs Engaged in Volunteer Activities, India Community Center, Taiwanese Senior Help Association, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Latinos), and St. Anne Catholic Parish (Filipinos).

CAPS integrates immigrants through a strength-based model that engages the full community and supports seniors in their own language, within their own cultural norms, and does so where seniors live, worship, and socialize. Ambassadors serve as a bridge between the formal network of social services and their respective faith and cultural communities.

The City of Fremont, San Jose State University, and the Stanford Geriatric Education Center collaborated to develop a comprehensive CAPS curriculum. In February, CAPS graduated 39 new ambassadors. To date, 88 people have completed the 40-hour training to learn how to provide information and referral services to seniors and families focused on issues such as housing, transportation, health benefits, social security, and legal assistance.

Local senior service providers have presented at the training and are listening to the needs of the diverse community. One hospital is learning about the needs of Muslim patients. They now know that Jell-O is considered an animal product not suited for vegetarians, and that Muslim women find it shameful to be examined by a male doctor.

CAPS trains and develops natural networks and gives them tools to serve their own seniors using methods that fit with their cultural norms. For example, Sikh seniors are seen at the Gurdwara, and Filipino seniors are seen at their church, where they regularly come for worship, companionship and food. The India Community Center has ambassadors housed at its community center, where they are well known to senior attendees. They also do home visits to "take the center to the community" when seniors are homebound. Over 600 older adults have been served by the CAPS program to date.

"We have experienced an enthusiastic partnership from our immigrant community. We know our seniors benefit from the CAPS program. This is a win-win program that could work in other communities," stated Asha Chandra, CAPS program manager.

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