Caring For An Immigrant Parent – Adding Culture And Complexity To Caregiving

by | Sep 5, 2022

Caring for our aging and elderly immigrant parents and loved ones can be exhausting and frustrating and rewarding and complicated. Adding in elements such as language barriers, generational distrust of hospitals and doctors, and lack of knowledge and experience with new digital resources can exponentially increase the exhaustion, frustration, and complexity. For those with aging parents who were not born in the United States and have a different cultural experience with the medical system, speak a different language or have limited English, AND are facing new and different medical issues, caretaking just took on a life of its own. According to the National Institutes of Health, the top three areas of opportunity for improvement in immigrant patient experience are:

  1. Establishing a collaborative treatment relationship rather than an approach that is directive and paternalistic.
  2. Addressing the language barrier by taking the time to listen, repeat if necessary, and ensure comprehension.
  3. Acknowledging and accounting for trust issues that may exist due to past experiences with the medical system in native countries or through past family experiences.

In reading through these three issues, I was struck by the similarities to all aging and elderly patients rather than the differences. The similarities of what all patients need in their medical treatment experience are to be seen and heard and respected. This comes from an understanding by medical professionals that all aging and elderly patients need a little more from them to be successful in their treatment. And a caretaker that can advocate on their behalf.

Knowing what our elderly immigrant loved ones need from the medical system is critical but getting to that point in the journey often comes after years of unspoken expectations, failed attempts to address the health elephant in the room, attestations by stubborn parents that they do not need medical treatment, and guilt-trips worthy of an Olympic Gold medal. Again, not different from what families across the country are facing daily, but without the patience and understanding to engage appropriately with immigrant patients, the journey can feel like an uphill climb dodging boulders on your way.

One example I learned from a friend with an elderly father who is 90+ and seeking medical treatment for relentless neck pain, is that when attending appointments with her dad the doctors often speak to her rather than to her father, the patient. While her dad does have an accent, he has a full comprehension of the English language, has lived in the country for over 50 years, and is highly educated. So why are they avoiding him and addressing her directly? Probably because it is faster and easier. This may be a flaw with the healthcare system currently in driving patients in and out at record speed, but I do believe is also part of the responsibility of medical professionals to set their patients – all patients – up for success. With 13.7% of the population of the United States currently made up of immigrants, the need is only increasing.

So, the medical system needs to evolve and adapt to meet the growing needs of the aging population with specific focus on our elderly immigrant loved ones. No problem, right? Maybe we’ll get back to controlling what we can control and knowing that caring for ourselves as caretakers and caring for our caretakers is equally as important. Caring for a loved one as they age is tricky with challenges that can be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, administrative,

financial, legal and more. In a previous blog, at, I wrote about creating your care team which ElderCare Navigators can help you create. Their services can also provide that support during medical visits to be the advocate for your aging parent and for you as the caretaker. The journey is exhausting and frustrating and rewarding and complicated. It can feel uphill, all day, every day. Help is here.

Time is finite. Love is eternal. Forgiveness is everything.

By, Laura Olson