BY ANDREA CASTILLO AND JOSH PFLUG
In 1972, Raul Soto immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, expecting to work for only a few years before returning to his home country. Forty years later, the 69-year-old former fruit picker – like millions of other migrant workers – is growing old in America.
“I still think about going back to Mexico, but I have never returned,” said Soto, now a U.S. citizen. “I never thought I would stay in this country, but I did.”
The Hispanic population in America continues to grow older, with the median age steadily increasing over the past 15 years, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday. Census Bureau projections indicate that the elderly Hispanic population - people aged 65 and older - will grow from 2.9 million in 2010 to 13.8 million by 2050.
Elderly Hispanic people now represent the fastest-growing population currently at or near retirement. By 2050, Hispanics will make up 20 percent of the elderly population, up from 7 percent in 2010, according to Census data.
“Latino adults are clearly living longer, but they are not living better,” said Yanira L. Cruz, president National Hispanic Council on Aging. “Their quality (of life) is very weak, leaving a lot to be desired.”
The median age of the Hispanic population remains low in comparison to other minority groups, according to the Census Bureau. The population’s median age has increased from 26.1 in 1995 to 27.6, according to data gathered in 2011 and released Thursday.
Experts say that the aging population -- including many who worked in migrant labor for decades -- presents a unique challenge for medical, social and housing organizations.
“Farm workers are, in general, invisible,” said Brien Thane, former executive director of Washington Farm Worker Housing Trust, which was dissolved due to lack of funding. “Elderly farm workers are like the invisible of the invisible. They really are a horribly neglected population.”
Among elderly Hispanics, the poverty rate is twice what it is for other Caucasians, and individuals are less likely to seek and receive health care, becoming more prone to heart disease, diabetes, dementia and cancer, according to state and federal studies. Those seniors who are here illegally face greater burdens to accessing care, experts say.
“The limited access to services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate presents major challenges,” Cruz said. “Access to services, as a result, becomes a big challenge.”
Health challenges in the heart of apple country
In the Yakima County, the country’s top producer of apples and hops, nearly half of the 220,000 residents are Hispanic. As that population ages, it presents unique challenges to social services, experts say.
At the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, Dr. Paul Monahan has treated agricultural workers for the last 41 years.
Monahan said many elderly farmworkers deal with injuries from the repetitive nature of farm work. Rather than crippling impairments, most disabilities that farm workers develop are restricting but not all-encompassing, he said.
“Overuse is the most common thing,” Monahan said. “Have you ever seen any videos of asparagus workers? They bend and they bend and they bend some more. And (it is no) surprise that they get an injury later on.”
Pesticide exposure also presents concerns for elderly workers, but few studies have addressed the effects of long-term exposure, Monahan said. Absent those studies, physicians may not be able to tell whether health problems in elderly patients are linked to pesticide exposure, he said.
“It is extremely frustrating for physicians who are reliant on laboratory measurements and things like that to reach a conclusion,” he said.
Elderly Hispanics often feel isolated because they don’t understand how to navigate the health care system, according to a 2011 report from Hispanics in Philanthropy. As a result lingering problems like hypertension and arthritis may go untreated.
Paul Apostolidis, an associate professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., studies the working conditions and occupational hazards facing migrant workers.
“You have workers in their twenties who lose their capacity for work (because of injuries),” he said. “It’s like they are elderly in their time.”
According to federal studies, farm workers are at high risk for work-related injuries, lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and cancers associated with chemical use and perpetual sun exposure.
Rev. Felipe Puleto, a priest at Saint Joseph’s Parish in Yakima, worked in the fields with his family when they first arrived to the U.S. from Mexico. He said many elderly Hispanic farm workers are more concerned with their children having access to health care than themselves.
“If they have headaches or even depression, they deal with that in their own ways,” Puleto said. “Only if the pain is severe, they go to the farm workers clinic. If it is something mild, they just take an aspirin or even natural medications.”
When Soto fell off a ladder in 1998 while picking fruit, he expected to get treatment for his hip injury and return quickly to work. Thirteen years later, Soto is retired on permanent disability.
“If I stand or walk for too long, my legs get numb,” Soto said. “It may appear that I don’t show it, but I am not well.”
From migrant labor to permanent homes in America
Soto represents a growing group of elderly Hispanics who spent their lives working in U.S. agriculture. Like more and more former farm workers, he chose to stay in the country, even after his work ended.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted citizenship to illegal immigrants who had entered the U.S. before 1982, encouraging many former migrant workers like Soto to settle permanently.
Jose Aguilar, 75, moved to California in 1971 to work at a clothing factory. He later moved to Washington state, where he worked for decades as a farm worker. Today, he lives alone in Zillah, Wash., choosing to stay in the U.S. to receive health care.
“I wanted to go back to Mexico, but I stayed here so the doctor can check up on me,” Aguilar said.
Growing old in America was not part of the American dream for many Hispanics who migrated in the 1970s and 80s, Puleto said. His parents, both 64, continue to work in the fields.
“My dad’s generation – they came here to work for a few years then go back,” he said. “That was the idea. But once they were here, and the kids were growing up and learning the language and culture, Mexico seemed to get farther and farther away.”
Stephanie Schendel contributed to this report. The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.