When elder refugees arrive in America they leave behind violence or religious persecution, as well as family, culture and their native language. A program in Louisville, Kentucky helps refugees who are 60 and older transition to American life and avoid isolation.
This is a protection against isolation – a social hall alive with music that inspires clapping and dancing among refugees in their 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s. It’s part of the Louisville Refugee Elder Program that serves arrivals from countries including Bhutan, Congo, Cuba, Iraq and Sudan.
The musician is 31-year-old Leiser Tito, a refugee from Cuba who came to the U.S. two years ago. One of the elder refugees comes up and enthusiastically introduces herself.
“Emma, Yo Emma”
That’s 85-year-old Emma Pedroso Iglesius. She says she’s also from Cuba and chats with Tito.
“She said I sing very good,” says Tito.
The Louisville Refugee Elder Program is sponsored by Kentucky Refugee Ministries. It is the only one in the state specifically for elder refugees funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement in partnership with the Kentucky Office for Refugees.
Social activities, citizenship preparation and English classes every Tuesday and Thursday create a community that helps prevent the physical and cognitive decline that can come from isolation.
At a recent conference of the Gerontological Society of America, psychology professor Yiwei Chen, from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said research shows isolation has more impact than just feeling lonely.
“Well, isolation kills, because the perception of loneliness has been constantly related to depression, anxiety and other types of mental disorders,” said Chen.
She said the negative impacts of isolation can be prevented by social support.
“So for the immigrants, refugees who come to this country without that kind of support, it will be very difficult,” said Chen.
In Louisville, that support comes from the Refugee Elder Program and includes activities like a trip to the Speed Art Museum.
“These clothes were somewhat out of fashion. They’re about 30 years older than what people were wearing at the time,” said museum docent Linda Valentine, who is with a group of elder refugees from Iraq and Sudan.
“So which ones do you like?” asks Valentine.
Interpreter Ehab Alhili asks in Arabic what 79-year-old Abdelkarim Musa, a refugee from Sudan, likes about the museum.
“Everything,” says Musa.
“Does he live alone or with someone? “He’s alone. He lives alone.”
“Does he get out very much?” Musa says he gets out mostly with the Refugee Elder Program. “They take them a lot, to many places,” says Alhili.
Another interpreter on the museum trip is Philip Ghimire, who’s from the South Asian country of Bhutan. He says some in the Louisville elder program had to flee Bhutan because of the political situation and spent years in refugee camps in Nepal. Ghimire says all that disruption in their lives can make them feel isolated when they first arrive in the U.S.
“And now they are quite fine, because the elderly program they run here, and older people came here and learn and sometime they have orientation about how to exist in Louisville, Kentucky, in American society,” said Ghimire.
As the elder refugees leave the museum and board the bus, the many languages and cultures, and the enjoyment of art, are woven into a buffer against isolation. That buffer is good cheer and good company that will last far beyond this day.
This story was produced with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and Silver Century Foundation.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.