Keeping Older Hmong People Connected

By Laura Apfelbeck


Quick. What do these movies have in common: Grand Torino, The Martian, A Beautiful Mind, The Shining, Castaway, and Shut In?

Answer. All depict the plight of those cut off from human interaction. Social isolation has tremendous impact. Our bodies actually produce more stress hormones when we are isolated. Other effects include poor sleep and a compromised immune system, meaning we’re more likely to get sick. For the elderly, social isolation results in cognitive decline.

People living in the same place all their lives avoid social isolation by developing a group of supportive friends and family members we can turn to in times of celebration or hardship. Social scientists call these our “social convoys.” And, like a convoy of ships or camels or semi-trucks, social convoys provide protection. Without this core set of supportive relationships, we become isolated and lonely, even depressed and physically unwell.

Human beings don’t create a convoy at age 60. We gather our convoy of friends and family along the way so support is there when we need it. But what happens if we move thousands of miles from our home?

Immigrants, especially those who immigrate later in life, often live with a broken convoy. They leave behind their network of friends and family and then find it difficult to construct new relationships. So they become isolated and invisible.

Most communities offer resources to assist elders in maintaining their convoys – senior meal sites feature shared meals and camaraderie. Senior centers offer activities like painting, quilting, card games, and travel. Exercise programs for seniors offer companionship along with health benefits. But for seniors who don’t speak English or drive, seniors who may not share the same cultural norms of their American-born peers, such services may not be much help.

Representatives from multiple organizations including Catholic Charities, Manitowoc County ADRC, Aurora Hospital, Lakeshore CAP, and University of Wisconsin-Extension FoodWIse recognized this problem and talked about it regularly. Hmong people have lived in Manitowoc County for more than 40 years. Still, we saw no Hmong elders using the senior center or dining at senior meal sites, none using exercise programs created for senior citizens.

Discussions with Hmong elders made it clear that language, transportation, and cultural barriers were the problem. After a year of information gathering and planning, Manitowoc County ADRC is about to begin offering culturally appropriate meals to Hmong seniors along with interpreters and activities.

Cathy Ley Director of ADRC of the Lakeshore secured funding to pilot this program. A grant from United Health Care will offset some of the transportation costs. UW-Extension, 4319 Expo Drive, Manitowoc, will host the meals every Tuesday from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm beginning January 8. The goal is to involve 20 Hmong elders at each lunch during the pilot, January – March of 2019. Can you help someone you love stay connected?

Photos from the Hmong Family Ties annual picnic in August 2018.