Latinos feel at home in senior center

By Julie Masis
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2009

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While about 40,000 Latinos reside in Lynn, Chelsea, Salem, and Peabody, until this winter there was no senior center in the suburbs north of Boston for the Latino community.

The North Shore Adult Day Health Center opened in Lynn at the end of January, and now serves elderly people from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru.

Most are from the Dominican Republic, once home to about half the Spanish-speaking population in Salem and a third in Lynn, according to the latest US Census.

On Feb. 27, the seniors at the North Shore Adult Day Health Center on North Common Street marked the Dominican Republic's Independence Day with music and stories about the nation's history. Lunch at the center is typically Caribbean, with cassava and plantains. English as a second language and US citizenship classes are offered in Spanish. Dominoes tournaments are held, as well as bachata and merengue dance competitions on Saturdays. The couple that get the most applause win.

The facility is funded by MassHealth and Medicare, and it accepts elderly clients who need assistance with their daily activities. There is a medical translator and a nurse, who monitors the clients' blood sugar regularly since diabetes is common among Latin American seniors. But the psychological support seniors receive is also important.

Before the center opened, most of the seniors were alone at home, said nurse Ana Marie Rodriguez, who is originally from Puerto Rico.

"So they express gratitude that they have a place to go to," she said. "They are happy because they don't have that barrier of communication."

While Massachusetts is home to approximately 14,000 Latinos over age 65, until recently there were only two adult day health centers in the state that catered specifically to Spanish speakers. Together they served approximately 100 people. Additionally, some adult health centers have bilingual staff to translate for Spanish-speaking seniors.

"Latinos stay home because they're afraid to go to a center that will not be accepting of their own community," said Marisol Amaya, the director of La Alianza Hispana, a senior center that serves about 36 clients in Boston. "They need more centers that will be for their own culture."

Jean Seero, the director of La Casa de Maria Inmaculada, an adult day health facility for Latinos in Lawrence, said she gets requests from seniors in Lowell and other towns, but the center can't accommodate everyone.

In March, when Latin American seniors return from their vacations in the Caribbean, La Casa usually starts putting names on its waiting list, Seero said. After that, "we'll have a waiting list until the end of the year," she said.

The North Shore Adult Day Health Center was founded by a group of Russian-speaking business representatives, some of whom already owned a similar center for Russian seniors.

All the centers follow a similar model: They hire staff who speak the language of the clients, serve culturally familiar foods, and provide entertainment. The idea is to bring together seniors who don't speak English to socialize with peers who speak their language.

"Being a nonnative American, and understanding what elderly [people] who are born in different countries face every day, we are equipped to recognize the need of ethnic communities," said Pearl Margovsky, a co-owner of the North Shore center who also co-owns a Russian adult day health center in Needham.

Greg Granovsky, a manager at Lynn Zabota Adult Day Care for Russian natives, said plans are underway to open a facility for Vietnamese or Cambodian seniors in Lynn by the end of the year. There are now no adult day care centers in Massachusetts that cater to Cambodian seniors, and only two Vietnamese centers - both in Dorchester - according to Kristina Barry, the spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

The North Shore Adult Day Health Center is accepting new clients. For information, call 781-595-4888.

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