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Aging Arab Americans: The Invisible Elders

Posted: Jan 22, 2013

DETROIT--As an Arab American journalist with a keen interest in community affairs and empowerment, I know that the elderly segment of the Arab American population is, like the entire community, in need of more resources, services and understanding.

However, receiving the fellowship meant a lot more than a new project for a veteran journalist. It was a fresh chapter in my understanding of a community I used to think I knew fully. It meant delving into an issue that is not currently on the established community monitor, though bound to be a major concern for all in the near future.

Where do I start? This was the question on the first day of the Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) conference in San Diego, Calif., this past November. GSA created the journalism fellowship program with New America Media (NAM). In the city’s huge Convention Center, where every room and hall was bustling with hundreds of scholars, officials, activists, students and journalists from all over the world, I found myself strangely at a loss. I was looking for a glimpse of anything Arab American to hang my hat on. There seemed to be nothing.

Research Hard to Find

I had to wait until the second day of the conference to find a single presentation on Arab and middle-eastern elders. The presentation introduced, or to be more accurate, reintroduced, the only two names I found in my initial pre-conference research, one was Sonia Salari from the University of Utah, author of the first academic paper on the subject, “Invisible in Aging Research: Arab Americans, Middle Eastern Immigrants, and Muslims in the United States” (published in GSA’s journal, The Gerontologist, in 2002). The other was Kristine J. Ajroush, an Arab American professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University.

The lecture mainly addressed issues concerning Arab elders in Palestine, Israel and Lebanon along with a statistical survey derived from the state of California and gathered by May Jawad Aydin from UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Compared to most of the sessions, this presentation struck a more introductory tone, covering the demographic and statistical data regarding the community elders. However, this is precisely what is needed to begin to approach the subject. It has been, after all, an invisible segment of our community.

But what makes this segment invisible?

First, we must look at the issue itself. Aging in the Arab world is not yet the phenomenon it is in the industrially advanced world. The United Nations’ estimates of life expectancy put the Arab states where most immigrants come from at approximately the world average: 67.2 years. The range extends from 73.4 years in the Palestinian Territories to 48.2 years in Somalia, with life expectancies in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco falling above the average, and those of Yemen, Iraq and Sudan falling below the average.

With numbers such as this, the collective lack of interest in the issue in the countries of origin is understandable. The fact that increases in life expectancy--seen significantly in the past decade, due to medical advancement and better living standards--are felt largely by the economically advantaged segments of these societies, further underscores the reason why aging is not yet a declared common concern.

Furthermore, the religious and social leadership in the Arab American community has struck a posture of superiority vis a vis its host culture on matters concerning elders. The prevailing romantic view of the Arab family as a closer, more intact unit perpetuates and enables the claim of “better” elder care. The reality, however, is quite different.

A More Realistic Reckoning

A more realistic reckoning shows that immigrants escaping war and chaos, who found their way to the New World and worked to give their children a better life, as well as parents of new immigrants, largely end up as domestic help for their more Americanized sons and daughters. More often than not, they live out their days with no privacy, no personal or civic life and no empowerment. Basically they do what they can to help the household and wait to die.

Finally, the most familiar factor at play in the invisibility of the aging issue is the matter of resources and scarcity. As a successful, seasoned activist in community social services puts it, “When we set our priorities based on community needs, the aging issue doesn’t make it to the top 10.” But a lack of resources to devote to it doesn’t make the issue go away.

I came away from this conference with the notion that the needs of elders in the Arab American community will become more visible and more salient with the aging of that segment of our population who have benefited from the comforts and rewards of our new society. I learned that the sooner we start caring, the better the outcomes we will achieve. I learned that resources are available when needs are prioritized appropriately. And finally, I learned that the media has a major role to play in bringing the issue to light.

Mohamad Ozeir wrote this story for Arab American News through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

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