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An immigrant perspective on aging in the U.S.

Friday, August 28, 2015

According to Mehrdad Ayati, an Iranian immigrant and geriatrician at Stanford, Americans have a lot to learn when it comes to the way older people are viewed and treated. He believes that United States culture could be better informed by the ways in which more “traditional” societies relate to their older members.
When Ayati immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, he noted considerable negative cultural attitudes toward aging, which contrasted greatly with what he was accustomed to in his native Iran. American culture is oriented toward youth and tends to create unpleasant associations with growing old. Aging in the U.S. is often viewed with fear and shame, which Ayati believes contributes to isolation and feelings of loneliness in the older members of the population.
Such negative connotations can also prevent elders from asking for needed help, or using devices such as a walker, from fear of being perceived as weak or frail. Not seeking assistance and remaining isolated, Ayati feels, can also impair cognitive function in geriatric patients. Negative cultural attitudes toward aging could even explain the loneliness and isolation leading to cognitive impairment that he observes in some of his geriatric patients, Ayati suggests.
In contrast, traditional societies embrace their older members and place them in a position of honor. The elderly are considered wise and are involved in social networks with people of their own age, outside of their families. 
Ayati believes that social engagement is key to aging in a healthy and even productive manner. He observes that immigrant parents who are brought to the U.S. by their children often suffer because they lose their social networks and have difficulty rebuilding them. Such loneliness degrades their cognitive abilities.
Because he is an immigrant, Ayati was able to view the way aging is treated in the U.S. with a fresh perspective, different from the way in which a U.S.-born researcher may have. This serves to underscore the importance of immigrants to U.S. society. From medicine to business, immigrants are crucial not only for their skills but also for a different way of perceiving problems or challenges. Immigration is complementary to American culture and economy, making this an overall better place to live.

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