Spanish Language Retention and English Proficiency
Perhaps one of the most common shared characteristics among the diverse Hispanic/Latino elder groups is their affinity for the retention and the use of the Spanish language. Factors that influence English language proficiency are multi-level and can be attributed to immigration or nativity history, cohort effects, education level, economic background, residence and geographic area.
Limited English proficiency has been reported as a barrier to accessing medical and social services (Mutchler & Brallier, 1999). Use of Spanish by Hispanic/Latino elders can also serve as a benefit to their quality of life and sense of ethnic identity. The U.S. census uses the term “linguistically isolated” to categorize those living in a household where no person aged 14 or above speaks English very well. According to the U.S. Census almost 2 in 5 elderly Hispanic/Latinos who speak Spanish only are linguistically isolated (U.S. Bureau of the Census, Summary Tape File 3C). Table 4 illustrates English language proficiency and linguistic isolation by Hispanic/Latino elder groups.
Cuban elders are the least likely to be proficient in English and are therefore the most isolated linguistically at 54%, compared to the Puerto Rican elders at 36% and Mexican American elders at 28%. Puerto Rican elderly rely on their adult children to assist them with communication requirements (Montoro-Rodriquez, Small & McCallum, 2006). Interestingly, Cuban elders have higher levels of education than any other group. Hispanic/Latino elders who speak English poorly or not at all tend to live in more Hispanic/Latino geographically concentrated areas. For example, many older Cubans have lived in the same ethnically cohesive geographic area (Miami-Dade, FL) since the time they immigrated to this country. This cohort may be bilingual however it is more usual for them to prefer speaking Spanish as their primary language (Arguelles & Aguelles, 2006). For all Hispanic/Latino elder groups, linguistic isolation can pose barriers to access.
Regardless of literacy level among the Hispanic/Latino caregivers it is critical that any outreach and intervention programs maintain the highest levels vigor in cross-cultural adaptation and translation (Talamantes, Trejo, Jimenez, Gallagher-Thompson, 2006; Talamantes & Aranda, 2004).
The education levels among the Hispanic/Latino elder groups vary significantly. Table 5 shows that, compared to the other ethnic/racial groups, Hispanic/Latinos have the least number of years of education. However, there are striking differences within the ethnic groups. As previously mentioned, the Cuban elders have achieved the highest level of education (Arguelles & Arguelles, 2006; Hernandez, 1992) compared to the Mexican American and Puerto Rican elders. Historically, many of the older Cubans were established, well educated professionals when they arrived in the U.S (Arguelles & Arguelles, 2006; Fligstein & Fernandez, 1994). Having little or no education can become a barrier for accessing health education information and accessing needed care.