I participate in service learning at Iona’s Active and Wellness Center at St. Albans in Cathedral Heights. Iona’s services are designed for elderly DC residents to socialize, exercise and eat in a safe and supportive environment. It is an excellent service to study from a public health perspective because it is providing a variety of health services to a typically underserved population. I do a variety of activities, including setting up the community space, sanitizing, cooking, serving, cleaning and engaging with the participants.
Finding a link between service and learning in class was a little difficult for me at the beginning. I had several ideas of how I expected to relate multicultural health and Iona. Originally I had planned to ask bluntly about the aging process, however after talking generally to the participants and coordinators I believe a better solution is to learn about cultural attitudes to health holistically. I am learning that Iona’s services are used by a hugely diverse group of individuals, there are a mixture of cultures, ages, sex, and ethnicities represented. I am finding that my perspective on aging in American culture is changing as a result of my observations.
While there are distinct cultures represented within the aging community, the process itself creates a cultural effect. As people age in America they are typically isolated or (more recently) incorporated into primarily elderly communities. My multicultural health class has emphasized critical thinking on how to make care more accessible through cultural competency and health promotion skills. In the case of the elderly, specific cultural competency is necessary for care givers to provide adequate care, some activities that I have observed would make care effective are: providing simple clear instructions (possibly with a caregiver or supporter there), allowing and encouraging autonomy as long as possible, organized information which can be easily accessed digitally and by paper, and finally prioritizing outreach.
Large risk factors in the elderly population includes physical and mental decline as a result of aging. One specific issue I have seen is a lack of nutritional support due to limited access to healthy foods in the neighborhood, or by their physical limitations to procure and prepare healthy foods. Some may also be at risk for depression due to isolation and the stresses of aging. Iona provides an accessible opportunity for physical exercise, meals and social support. The community is a very close and active one which supports its members.
The service at Iona has helped me understand more about the needs of the elderly population, but has also shifted my perception on aging. Aging is a unique experience because it is a universal experience – the diversity of the participants at Iona have helped solidify this for me. Any individual disagreements about culture, politics, experience or opinions seem to be put aside in favor of the community supporting the individual in their needs; this attitude has me beginning to believe that aging is the largest cultural subgroup of them all.