Many first-generation Muslim immigrants in America turn to family members to care for them as they grow older. Their reliance on family has deep cultural and religious roots, but it can be challenging for over-extended relatives to meet all their needs.
Mona Negm, former assistant director of minority affairs at AARP, set out to break down cultural barriers and help Muslim seniors connect with a wider range of community supports in their quest to age at home with dignity. She founded the American Muslim Seniors Society in March of 2017.
Her organization is based in Montgomery County, Maryland where about 10 percent of adults age 50 or older are Muslim. She spoke recently with MemoryWell contributor Tobi Elkin about her work. The following is an excerpt of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.
The majority of Muslim families don’t believe in nursing homes. But one of the tragedies is that it’s not always possible for adult children to take care of their parents.
MemoryWell: Why did you start this organization? What needs did you see in the Muslim-American community that were not being addressed?
Negm: First generation immigrants are not used to the service delivery system in this country. They find it difficult to navigate the system. There can be language barriers, cultural barriers and financial barriers. There are religious barriers too, for example, when it comes to nutrition programs. They can’t join the county-funded programs because they are not serving Halal food. If they’re used to Halal food, they won’t access a nutrition program even if it’s next door. These are the kinds of challenges we are trying to address.
MemoryWell: What kind of programs and services do you offer?
Negm: We coordinate community dialogues at mosques on health and wellness issues, end-of-life care, legal issues, the basics on memory loss, and caregiving. We also offer support services, food delivery and pick-up, and help completing government forms.
We focus on providing education about long-term care options to seniors. And we offer cultural sensitivity training for health and long-term care providers to better serve Muslim seniors. We also promote culturally and religiously acceptable nutrition programs that include serving Halal food.
MemoryWell: What are particular obstacles Muslim seniors may have with respect to aging and accessing long-term care?
Negm: Many first-generation immigrants would never want to be placed in a nursing home. You are trained from childhood that parents take care of you when you’re young, then you take care of your parents. If you please your parents, you will go to paradise and God will reward you later on.
The majority of Muslim families don’t believe in nursing homes. But one of the tragedies is that it’s not always possible for adult children to take care of their parents. They’re scattered, they’re working, and the parents are left behind.
A lot of Muslim seniors and their kids don’t know where the help is, and most seniors and caregivers won’t talk about it to strangers. It takes time to gain trust and to be able to connect with people, but once you connect, it’s like the doors of heaven open up.
Our county has a wealth of resources for seniors but Muslims haven’t accessed them.
MemoryWell: How would you characterize the Muslim community in your area?
Negm: We are extremely diverse. We have Muslims from 37 different countries. They are from Asia, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. Their rituals are different. They have different languages and cultures. Some are highly educated and financially secure. But there’s another group that’s struggling to survive, can’t speak English, and doesn’t know how to access support and services. Some are asylum-seekers and are fearful of being deported.
MemoryWell: How do you reach this diverse group of seniors?
Negm: We work collaboratively with a consortium of 11 Muslim community centers. We partner with them and the imams, the religious leaders of the community, and we formed a Muslim Advisory Council. The Council guides our actions and develops programs for and with the community. We also formed a stakeholder advisory council which represents health and long-term care organizations, technical support, and other county resources, such as aging and disability services, the Alzheimer’s association, hospice services and hospitals.
The stakeholder advisory council helped us train 37 community leaders including the imams, who have become our health and long-term care outreach ambassadors. The ambassadors are the conduit to seniors and caregivers. They are multilingual and know their communities.
Our county has a wealth of resources for seniors but Muslims haven’t accessed them. Our role is to channel resources through the volunteer ambassadors, get information to people, and identify isolated seniors and their caregivers to connect them to available resources.
Tobi Elkin is a versatile New York-based writer, editor, interviewer, and advocate with an interest in intergenerational stories, documenting the lives of seniors, and helping them share their stories. Her writing can be found here.