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Conn professors develop site for New London Hispanic seniors and caregivers

A website designed for Hispanic families in New London may fill what two Connecticut College professors say is a linguistic and cultural gap preventing caretakers for aging New London residents from finding out about services available to them.

Maria Cruz-Saco and Mónika López-Anuarbe, both economists at Connecticut College, set out nearly eight years ago to study trends among Hispanic residents of New London. They also wanted to incorporate the information into their research about health spending and cross-generational care within Hispanic families across the United States.

At focus groups at the Community Health Center of New London and the Hispanic Alliance’s Provenance Center, they interviewed Hispanic adults living in New London over several years.

One common observation emerged: Information about services available to elderly city residents and their families simply was not reaching them.

"There was a void in terms of the information," Cruz-Saco said.

Unfamiliar with the help available at the city's senior center, unwilling to think of themselves as senior citizens, or unable to understand written materials or in-person help available only in English, many of the people they interviewed felt left in the dark.

Now, with the help of local nonprofit organizations and agencies, the Connecticut College team is working on a practical solution to the problems they found during their research. In short, New London’s Hispanic communities — which account for about a third of the city’s total population — are missing crucial information about how to take care of aging relatives.

Cruz-Saco and López-Anuarbe authored a paper this year with a fellow Connecticut College professor, Joyce Bennet, documenting the results of surveys and focus groups as well as their efforts to develop the website, which they called an educational tool.

"Some of these families don't know exactly how Social Security works," for example, Cruz-Saco said.

The economists developed a draft of the website with the help of a Connecticut College computer science student. When they presented it to a new focus group last year, they said, the participants were eager to suggest more sections to add to the site, such as lists of doctors who speak Spanish, the SEAT bus schedule and information about Meals on Wheels.

"That was the point, to be really specific," López-Anuarbe said.

The site will also include links to resources that would help caregivers learn to keep themselves healthy amid the stress of caring for their elderly relatives.

"The idea is to have support groups and resources," López-Anuarbe said.

Marina Vracevic, the coordinator at New London's senior center, said as many as half of the people who receive meals, get paperwork help or participate in activities at the center are Hispanic or Latino.

But, she said, no staff members at the senior center speak fluent Spanish — Vracevic relies on Google Translate or phone calls to other Spanish-speaking city employees to help Hispanic clients. 

Despite a push last year led by New London human services director Jeanne Milstein to develop more programs focused on the Latino population last year, staff at the senior center have struggled to attract Spanish-speaking New London seniors to take advantage of the full spectrum of the center's offerings, Vracevic said.

"There's this level ... of shyness," she said.

The website, Cruz-Saco said, will act as a necessary middle man between seniors or their family members and city officials or nonprofit organizations that they may not feel comfortable approaching.

"Anybody can look at it," Cruz-Saco said.

The site is planned to launch this spring, after the professors incorporate feedback from their most recent focus group. By then, they expect to have approached people associated with Connecticut College's Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy and the nonprofit Hispanic Alliance — which was founded by Cruz-Saco's husband, Alejandro Melendez-Cooper — to keep the site running.

They envision the site as an adaptable resource, with tools for people to suggest additions, give feedback, and keep information timely.

"It will be a dynamic thing between the people who manage the web page and the community," Melendez-Cooper said.

Melendez-Cooper said he hopes the site will be one tool to empower the city's older Hispanic residents and their children to take advantage of the various social services and rights available, and said it might help eliminate uncertainty about where to go or whom to ask for help.

"At least they will have the information," he said. "They will see a way to get connected."

Cultural differences in communication can hinder that process, he said.  

"The first thing is the language thing," he said. "But the second thing is the cultural thing. ... Even if they had people in the senior center that speak Spanish, it's more than that. The fact that I tell you something, and you listen when I'm telling you, doesn't mean you understand." 

m.shanahan@theday.com

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