Posted by Jon Federman

What challenges do our older immigrants and refugees face in trying to survive in a strange and foreign land? How do we protect them from discrimination and from feeling lonely or isolated?

On January 10, Irina Rutman, Program Coordinator for New American Services and Case Manager for Schechter Holocaust Services, represented JF&CS at a conference at Boston College, entitled, "Diversity & Aging: Perceptions, Perspectives, and Populations." Sponsored by the Boston College School of Social Work, the conference explored the intersections of diversity and social work practice as well as the challenges social workers face in meeting the needs of older immigrants and refugees.

Irina was part of a panel called, "The Invisible, Unheard, and Underserved Minority Elders." Along with two other speakers from the Asian and African elder communities, Irina gave a passionate and thought-provoking speech based on her experiences with Russian-speaking elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom were also victims of Nazi persecution.

The majority of Irina's clients came to America when they were already elderly. They had never worked here, so their understanding of their children's lives is minimal and their grandchildren do not speak Russian. As a result, their most significant problem is isolation in an unfamiliar environment, followed by language barriers, diminished connection with their adult children, and even discrimination. All of these can quickly lead to depression and physical illness.

Irina went on to discuss her clients' distrust of any kind of social services, because acceptance of help such as counseling is not a part of Russian culture. Also, social services are perceived by her clients as a dangerous governmental intrusion. Problems arise due to misunderstanding, lack of communication, unclear guidelines, fear, and mistrust.

As an example, Irina spoke about the Social Security Administration and Department of Transitional Assistance workers who do not understand her clients' geographic origins. One worker requested certain documents from the Russian government. The client, who was born in Belorussia, had to explain that the Soviet Union no longer exists, that Belorussia is not part of Russia, and that the Russian government would not have any of those documents.

Ending on a more hopeful note, Irina emphasized the importance of advocating for these clients, adding that "advocating for the less fortunate is the most challenging and rewarding part of [her] job." Irina also noted that the collaboration of the many different departments at JF&CS has been the key to serving her clients successfully, from pro bono legal services to assistance for Holocaust survivors to New England's only kosher food pantry.

Finally, Irina explained that perhaps the most important solution was to involve schools in teaching students social values and respect for the elderly. "No matter what your age, you are always moving forward to becoming elderly," she added.

Jon FedermanJon Federman is the JF&CS Staff Writer. A practicing attorney for more than 15 years, he is thrilled to bring his legal and persuasive writing skills to the JF&CS Marketing Communications department. Jon has a BA from Tufts University and a JD from Boston College Law School. In his spare time he is an exhibiting photographer and an award-winning cartoonist. Jon lived in London, England for five years before returning to Boston in 2011.