December 23, 2014
Diversity Within Diversity:  The Uniqueness in Our Ethnic Elders
By: Randella Bluehouse

Guest blog by Maria Hernandez Peck


It is my privilege to have an opportunity to share some of my thoughts about what needs to be considered when serving ethnic minority elders.   As service providers, it is imperative that we know where we find ourselves in relationship to these groups.  Early on in my career as a professional educator, I learned the importance of achieving some sense of cultural competence, these days I think of it as cultural humility, if I were going to be effective as a practicing professional.  Back in those days, Dr. Jose Gallegos, DSW, provided us with a model that highlighted the importance of understanding our beliefs and values and how these interfaced with or might be different from those of our potential clients as well as how these may impact our approach to service delivery.  We also focused on knowledge of the population being served and what we knew were the best ways to reach out to them.  We needed to consider what had been the experience of the particular group of ethnic elders in their community, to what degree had they experienced historical oppression, as well as how were they viewed by the majority population.

A second set of authors, Stoller and Gibson, provide us with a Life Course Perspective that enhances our understanding of the diversity within older ethnic populations. Their model emphasizes that what we experience in old age is shaped by where we find ourselves within the social system, the historical period in which we live, and our very unique personal biographies.  As a process, aging is affected by an individual’s personal attributes, their particular life events, and how they adapt to these events.  Even though older people today have lived through the same historical period, the impact of that history on their individual biographies varies with their position in society based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation.  These hierarchies create systems of privilege as well as disadvantage.  How these are operationalized within our own personal lives are elements most influential on how we as individuals may experience sociohistorical periods that have a definite impact on the aging experience.  This perspective broadens our approach to the aging process that earlier theories of aging neglected:  personal biographies, sociocultural factors, and sociohistorical periods.

When thinking of ethnic minority elders, we need to realize that each group has its own special history.  An appreciation of the context in which these individuals matured is required if we are to understand their present status. Their special history has been accompanied by discrimination resulting in fewer power resources.  Those who are 65 in 2014 were born in 1948, 12 years before the civil rights era of the sixties.  They are one generation, and in some instances, a few generations removed from immigration, slavery, conquest, and /or forced labor.  For those who are more recent arrivals into the US, their journeys have been influenced by political and civic unrest and/or a desire for a higher economic standard of living.

To understand ethnic minority elderly we need to realize that each group has developed its own subculture and coping structures have evolved.  The tendency has been to turn their affiliation and relationships to their own group.  When we look a their experiences we can begin to see that they were oppressed in almost every aspect of life.  Their growing up years took place during a historical time when resources, roles and status were determined almost exclusively by race and ethnicity.  They were raised at a time when discrimination and segregation were sanctioned and in some instances upheld by laws.  This in turn has influenced their orientation to life and perceptions of the world and in many instances continue to influence their relationship to each other and to the larger society.

Monica McGoldrick, in an early version of her textbook on Ethnicity and Family Therapy, provides us with a set of questions for practitioners to consider when working with ethnic minority elderly.  These are as follows:


  • What do they define as the problem?
  • What do they see as the solution to the problem?
  • To whom do they turn for help?
  • How have they responded to immigration?
  • What are the typical family patterns of the group?
  • How do they handle life cycle transitions?
  • What may be the difficulties for the helping person of the same background or the helping person of a different background?


As a practicing professional who has begun to experience my own aging at this stage of my life, I am more carefully assessing what Bonnie Genevay refers to the Personal/’Professional Connection.  What is it that I bring into my work and how does this interface with my clients’ experiences with their families and significant others?  Are new insights evolving given my own history as an immigrant/refugee and how has my life evolved within this larger society?  Are these personal insights allowing me to have a deeper understanding of those ethnic elders that I am to serve and that I am now  a part of?  What remains a constant is the need for relationship, honesty, and cultural humility, realizing that this will need to continue as a life long process.



Gallegos, Joseph. (1982). The ethnic competence model for social work education. In B. W. White (Ed.), Color in a white society. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers.

Genevay, B.; Katz, R.S. (eds.). (1990). Countertransference and older clients. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

McGoldrick, M.; Giordano, J.; Garcia-Preto, N. (eds.). (2005). Ethnicity and family therapy. (3rd ed.). New York, London: Guilford Press.

Stoller, E.P., & Gibson, R.C. (2000). Worlds of difference: inequality in the aging experience. (3rd ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.



Maria Hernandez Peck has collaborated with and has been a friend of the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA) for over eight years. In her own words: “My mother suggested that if I wanted to be of service I should do research on our Cuban Elders and how they would be taken care of over the long term. I have been in the field ever since. After a long career as a Professor and Director of the Center for Studies in Aging and Long Term Care (Eastern Washington University) I continue to contribute by serving on the boards for the Asociación Nacional Pro Personas Mayores (ANPPM), Frontier Behavioral Health (Spokane, WA), Refugee Connections Spokane, and for my local Area Agency on Aging.”

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.