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LA SED Senior Center emphasizes wellness, support for southwest Detroit seniors, caregivers as Latino population and funding needs rise

When LA SED first started offering programs for senior citizens in the late 1960s, its main goal was to provide a welcoming senior center where Spanish-speaking elders could visit and socialize.

“When the program first started, it was basically to prevent social isolation, provide a hot meal and bring people together,” said former Center Director Guadalupe Lara who is now a part-time wellness instructor at the Center. “There was some minimal exercise and some arts and crafts.”

LA SED seniors and staff collaborate with World Medical Relief to make baby blankets.

But the programming of the past no longer suffices as researchers and professionals have underscored the need for service providers to develop and maintain cultural competencies for outcomes expected by today’s standards. Ethnic senior centers have understood the changed landscape but have been as challenged by those changes as the caregivers seeking available resources for help.

After 2010’s census data was released, Michigan’s Latino demographic was 4.2 percent of the state’s 9.8 million population, or about 440,000 people. Today, 2020’s census numbers show Michigan’s population at just over 10 million with Latinos constituting 5.6 percent of that number, or 560,000 people.

Michigan’s population statistics jibe with national demographics that point to increased needs for an expanding elderly population in general, and Michigan’s Latino elderly community in particular. In 2000, about 1.2 million Michiganders were aged 65 or older. Twenty years later, projections show that Michigan’s over 65 cohort is 17.7 percent of the population or over 1.5 million Michigan residents.

In southwest Detroit, those numerical shifts are being felt by Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development – best known by its acronym LA SED, which has been trying to assess and reposition its programs for the area’s predominantly Latino community in recent years. 

Located at 7150 W. Vernor Highway, Detroit, LA SED Senior Center has been a safe space for elderly Latinos to socialize, converse in Spanish, receive particularized services, take English classes and stay connected to the community for over 50 years. LA SED regularly offers vaccine clinics, food distribution, translations and a large array of social programming. Although the majority of LA SED’s elderly clients are Spanish speakers, the Center’s participants include African-Americans and members of other ethnic groups residing in southwest Detroit.

According to findings released in 2015 by Michigan State University’s Julian Samora Research Institute, the national and Michigan Latino population trends younger than the non-Latino white population and is growing at a faster rate, with those over 65 outnumbered seven-to-one by those under 15 years old.

With family members stretched and eldercare duties the expected responsibility of loved ones, government bodies and non-profits specializing in senior citizen services have increasingly understood that supported caregivers are better able to maintain that older person’s health and quality of life in an otherwise fragmented and under-resourced eldercare system.

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance’s latest statistics on Michigan’s caregivers, in 2014 there were nearly 1 million informal caregivers in the state providing over a million hours of caregiving a year. Calling on relatives and friends ranks first on the list of options to arrange in-home care for an elderly relative or friend.

LA SED’s new Senior Center Director Anarosa DeLaRosa is confronting that mix of age, culture, language, place, and available resources to lead the Center into a new decade that will see needs for elders, caregivers, and the community shift and expand.

“I find that families can have such an emotional difficulty seeing what’s in front of them,” said DeLaRosa. “I think one of the barriers is that the closest people to that senior are not very clear on what is going on and it’s very difficult and they’re not educated on what resources are available.”

A senior decorates a tree for the Strides for Seniors event in September.

DeLaRosa is sympathetic to the obstacles that confront caregivers trying to access services and programs that will provide security and stability to the senior citizen in their life.

“Available resources are limited,” she said. “The applications take quite a long time to process and if you don’t qualify for Medicaid, even if you’re over $100, then it’s private pay. So, it’s either one line or nothing. So many people are impacted, and private pay is incredibly expensive.”

To fill the gap for families that can’t qualify their elders for Medicaid, LA SED recently shifted programming to focus on wellness, offering updated educational and exercise classes to emphasize a mind-body connection consistent with cultural traditions. The programs are funded in part by a grant from the Detroit Area Agency on Aging.

“Many of our Latino seniors have diabetes and cardiac problems that are related to diabetes, as well as high blood pressure and other things that we can manage,” said Lara, the Center’s part-time wellness instructor.

The Center offers classes to teach chronic disease self-management (tomando control de tu salud), managing diabetes (manejando tu diabetes) and how to prevent falls.

“Overall, our focus is on wellness and because of our culture where people like to break bread together,” Lara added. “We talk about how we can still eat our Latino food, but how to prepare it in a healthy way. The seniors come together and have a wonderful potluck after the class. That really builds confidence in them and is that evidence that they can change.”

Mary Carmen Munoz, Director of LA SED, says that one way the success of the Senior Center can be observed is in its consistent ability to surpass funding goals. Those goals call for certain numbers of seniors to interact with a certain range of programs. Munoz says that before the spring of 2020, the Senior Center served over 3,000 individuals but in the 2021 fiscal year, the pandemic brought the number down to 2,193 unique clients. In the last couple of months they have begun to steadily rise. Munoz says they will hit the 3,000 mark again very soon. 

Success is not only measured in the number of people reached, but the quality of care they recieve. A client survey in 2020 polled 40 individuals who had taken part in senior programming provided by LA SED. 75% of those polled reported coming to the Senior Center three to four days a week. All participants reported satisfaction with the services they received and that they benefited from medical services. Some clients reported that they would like to see some additional services but for the most part the report demonstrates a high level of satisfaction.

However, the 2020 survey is the most recent and some changes made during the pandemic may have created new obstacles. Munoz says one limitation expressed by the seniors “is the hesitancy in taking virtual classes.” Another limitation is the restrictions attached to the organization’s funding.

Munoz says the grant “focuses on our unique ability to service Spanish speaking seniors. As such, our Center is only permitted to teach those evidenced-based classes that are funded through DAAA in Spanish.” She says English speakers have repeatedly voiced displeasure that class cannot be taught in English at the Center.

Seniors stand under a bulletin board they put together for thanksgiving.

The Senior Center is drawing more attention and it is encouraging people to eat healthy, exercise and be social. Although one may easily recognize these things to be important elements of a healthy lifestyle, it is hard to assess without additional data whether the wellbeing programming offered by the Center provides a benefit comparable to hands-on geriatric medical care.There are bigger structural issues that LA SED knows it cannot solve alone, including a lack of bilingual Spanish-speaking health care professionals in southeast Michigan. Munoz says it’s difficult to find someone qualified for the position and willing to take it. There is a need for more culturally appropriate support and resources for families caring for an elder with complex problems such as Alzheimer’s.

“I had a senior’s daughter call me because her father is not going to be able to come here,” Lara said. “He’s very weak and it was very difficult for her. She would like a caregiver to come at least four hours to the home, but they have to speak Spanish. Many would do that job [but it’s] not very well paid and hard, and some people are not documented and that’s a problem. That is, I would say, one of the biggest gaps in terms of caregiving for our seniors.”

LA SED also recognizes that the community has a significant need for a day program for Spanish-speaking seniors diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but does not have the capacity to offer it now or adequately help family caregivers looking for respite for their loved one.

“My heart aches every time one of our seniors has to go into [assisted living] because they can’t come here anymore,” Lara said. “They don’t have anybody to speak their language and if they speak broken English, they’re isolated.”

In a 2020 press release, Eliezer Masliah, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Aging Division of Neuroscience, said “To successfully battle and ultimately prevent or treat a complex disease such as Alzheimer’s, we need to understand how this disease and other forms of dementia affect our nation’s diverse communities differently.” 

One nonprofit, The Latino Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders Alliance, started in Chicago as a grassroots movement in 2008 with the mission to educate and provide training for the family caretakers of Latino patients. Today LAMDA has a standard curriculum that is taught nationally and an evidence-based practice program designed for Latino caregivers.  

Lara and DeLaRosa know that the issues facing southwest Detroit’s Latino senior citizens are familiar to other southeast Michigan ethnic communities. Lara recalls that LA SED and Dearborn’s Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services – better known by its acronym ACCESS – collaborated and shared programming information in the past because of shared client and caregiver issues and challenges.

Established just two years after LA SED in 1971, “ACCESS visited [LA SED] because we were doing these client services and they modeled their agency,” Lara said. “I commend them because they have grown and their funding from foundations and their own community has been exceptional.”

That generosity between the two nonprofits has grown in recent years to include collaborative fundraising, where two or more nonprofits agree on a common program goal and seek funding together to coordinate a high-impact project that neither nonprofit would be able to launch alone. According to LA SED’s website, the nonprofit receives funding from United Way of Southeastern Michigan, Ford Fund, City of Detroit, Michigan Department of Transportation, and other foundations, corporations and individual donors.

Lara reflected on ACCESS’s fundraising success and wondered what impact new funding would have on LA SED’s ability to expand fundraising and strategic planning for the senior center’s clients and caregivers.

“Right now, we don’t have time to have strategic planning,” said Lara. We have a board and they do amazing work just to keep us going to where we are. I think other agencies would see LA SED as a success in that we’ve been able to survive all these years with limited funding.”

As DeLaRosa and Lara focus on the senior center’s immediate needs, both women agree that LA SED must invest in itself to take the senior center into a future that predicts a larger senior population with still unaddressed needs.

But, asked Lara, “How are you going to do all that and provide services?”


By Paula Anderanin, Georgi-Ann Bargamian, Lucas Resetar

New Michigan Media

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