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Ethnogeriatrics in Senior Care

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Understanding the intersection of ethnicity and senior care.
Dr. Krishna Kumari Raheja, Ph.D in MultiCultural Gerontology

When I tell people that I've dedicated the last 8 to 10 years of my life to volunteering with South Asian seniors and that I work as an ethnogeriatric consultant, I often receive quizzical looks. It's a term that may sound important but doesn't always immediately make sense to everyone. So, let's demystify ethnogeriatrics and explore why it's a crucial field, especially in the context of the growing population of senior citizens from diverse cultural backgrounds.

What is Ethnogeriatrics?

Ethnogeriatrics is a specialized branch of geriatrics, which is the medical care of older adults. It delves into the study and understanding of how factors like culture and ethnicity impact the health and overall well-being of seniors. It's about recognizing that older adults from diverse cultural backgrounds possess unique healthcare needs and preferences that should be considered and respected when providing care and support.

The Phenomenon of "Ethnic or Cultural Reversion"

As individuals age, something fascinating happens. A phenomenon known as "ethnic or cultural reversion" occurs. Older individuals who have spent a significant portion of their lives in their homeland or cultural environment may gradually revert to or become more strongly attached to the cultural norms, values, and practices of their country of origin or ethnic background. I witnessed this transformation in my own parents, highly educated individuals who, as they approached their 80s and 90s, began favoring Indian cuisine, speaking more Hindi and Punjabi, and finding comfort in the company of fellow South Asians.

Why Ethnogeriatrics Matters for Senior Care

With the population of minority senior citizens on the rise, it's imperative to understand the pivotal role of ethnicity in caregiving. Here are some key reasons why ethnogeriatrics matters:

1. Cultural Sensitivity: Seniors from different ethnic backgrounds often hold unique cultural values and beliefs that significantly influence their health-related decisions and behaviors. For instance, some male senior citizens may not feel comfortable receiving care from female attendants due to cultural norms.

2. Health Disparities: Ethnicity can play a crucial role in health disparities among senior citizens. Initiatives like the "South Asian Heart Health Awareness and Research Act" aim to raise awareness about specific health challenges faced by certain ethnic groups, such as heart disease in South Asians.

3. Dietary Preferences: Various cultures have diverse dietary preferences and restrictions. For example, many South Asians and others follow vegetarian diets, posing challenges for organizations like Meals on Wheels in providing nutritious meals that align with cultural preferences.

4. Religious Practices: Respect for religious beliefs is paramount in caregiving. For seniors who follow religions that require head coverings, such as Judaism, Islam, or Sikhism, caregivers must be sensitive to these practices, as removing a head covering may cause distress.

Promoting Culturally Competent Care

Understanding how ethnicity impacts individuals as they age is vital for providing effective care. Seniors are more likely to trust and feel comfortable with caregivers who are culturally sensitive and respectful of their backgrounds. This trust, in turn, leads to better health outcomes and an improved overall quality of life for senior citizens.

In a world where diversity is celebrated, it's essential that the caregiving community recognizes and embraces the cultural richness that each senior brings to the table. Ethnogeriatrics serves as a bridge, connecting the dots between cultural diversity and effective, compassionate senior care. By acknowledging the significance of ethnicity in elder care, we can ensure that seniors from all backgrounds receive the respect, dignity, and culturally competent care they deserve as they navigate the journey of aging.

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