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As the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants from Haiti, I have a deep respect for the rich traditions of the generations that preceded me. My family’s elder women – especially my late maternal grandmother and my mother – have been great matriarchs and their lessons are too important to forget. We should also not forget that celebrating and valuing our family history means helping to address the health challenges our seniors face.
Across the lifespan, the health status of racial and ethnic minorities has often long lagged behind that of whites, and this is no more plainly evident than with minority seniors who oftentimes battle multiple chronic illnesses. For older women of color, the impact of health disparities can have a greater impact for a variety of reasons including language barriers and access to affordable, healthy food to ensure proper nutrition. Poverty and cultural norms that often differ from their health care providers can be major challenges to promoting health and wellness in their later years.
And now, on the 80th anniversary of the Social Security Act, the 50th anniversaries of the Medicare and Medicaid and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 30th anniversary of the Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health, we are at another pivotal point in the health of our nation. This moment is being shaped by the most significant legislation in a generation that will help to reduce health disparities: the Affordable Care Act.
An estimated 12.5 million women of color – 5.1 million black women, 4.9 million Latinas, and 2.5 million Asian American women – with private health insurance now have guaranteed access to women’s preventive services including well-woman visits, mammograms, domestic violence counseling and other services without any out-of-pocket costs. This type of access is especially critical for minority women who are less likely than white women to receive preventive services such as osteoporosis, cancer and diabetes screening, as well as flu and pneumococcal vaccinations.
While access to affordable, quality health care through the Affordable Care Act is a monumental start, it is one factor in a complicated set of issues that impact our goal of realizing health equity in America. We are making strides in addressing these issues and enhancing the health care experiences of older women of color through initiatives and policy standards such as the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Health Care. Equally important, is ensuring that our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other loved ones have access to programs like From Coverage to Care. This valuable resource can help seniors fully understand their benefits and find health care services, which is crucial to helping them live their longest – and healthiest – lives.
Addressing the challenges and opportunities ahead for older women of color is not work that any one person, group or organization can do alone. It is a collective effort, and we as a nation – across public and private sectors, must pull together like a tightly knitted quilt to advance the work that remains to be done. In the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes us all to achieve better health for women of all ages.
For more information, visit www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov.
J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MSCE, is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health and the Director of the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
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