Imagine being a refugee or immigrant and coming into the U.S. in your 60s, 70s, 80s, or even 90s and having to navigate life in a country where you did not grow up, do not speak the language fluently, and do not have family or friends nearby. How overwhelming, confusing, and isolating this would be.

That’s the reality many older refugees face. Fortunately, community organizations across the country are there to provide services and resources to support their well-being and help them feel included in their communities. One such organization is the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), which through a partnership with Colorado State University’s (CSU) Office of Engagement and Extension has created a model for supporting the underserved. Together, they teamed up to offer the Aging Mastery Program® (AMP) to Denver area older adult refugees from Middle Eastern and Eastern African countries.

How Aging Mastery can help reach the underserved

CSU has been running AMP since 2020. They offered classes to the older Latino/Hispanic community in rural areas in northeastern Colorado and saw how meaningful the program was for participants. (Learn more about that program here.)

AMP is not a scripted program, so the classes can be adapted culturally and tailored easily for different groups.

“AMP was the most effective tool for us to reach and serve our underserved communities,” said Eric Ishiwata, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Ethic Studies and Director of DEI for the Office of Engagement and Extension at CSU, who supported this effort.

AMP was the easiest way to start relationships with people in communities of color, engage them in other programs for older adults ,and connect with other people.”

The success of running AMP in Spanish led Ishiwata to think about offering the program to other underserved or even, unserved groups. The key to successful program implementation for the immigrant and refugee communities proved to be “finding the right community partner organizations that are already connected with the potential participant groups and finding facilitators/champions who are familiar to those people even if they have never taught a class before.” 

The governor's office connected Ishiwata to the DRCOG, which has been serving immigrant and refugee older adults through its Older Adult Refugees and Friends Program since 2012, and they agreed to join in the project.

DRCOG already had uniquely skilled staff able to offer linguistically accessible and culturally relevant education around wellness and preventing social isolation, so adding AMP to its offering was a good fit. They understood that the most important factor in running any class is existing familiarity and trust between the facilitators and participants.

"Our infrastructure was already there, and the AMP curriculum gave it more structure. So, we already had our participants interested in these topics. We also had a trusting relationship with our clients,” said SB Ford, Refugee Program Manager for DRCOG.

Running the AMP class in multiple languages at once

CSU and DRCOG took a bold but effective approach. The class was interpreted simultaneously into five languages: Arabic, Amharic, French, Swahili, and Tigrinya. Yes, simultaneously, verbally, and in person.

All the participants from the different countries sat in the same room, in groups with people who spoke the same language. Then, the staff paired with the group that spoke their shared language. The DRCOG instructors met beforehand to learn and discuss the lesson, figuring out how to translate the material and make the examples culturally relevant. The three instructors rotated week-by-week, sharing the responsibility of leading the lessons. Instructors would offer the lesson in English and their students' languages, while the other instructors provided consecutive interpretation into their students' languages.

Of course, interpretation was not easy; some words just could not be simply translated to make sense in another language. “I wasn’t sure how I could translate ‘Aging Mastery’ in Arabic,” said Zara Otaifah, an instructor at DRCOG. However, Ishiwata encouraged the instructors to communicate the overall concept and make the content understandable and culturally appropriate to the participants instead of trying to translate it word by word.

DRCOG staff’s thorough and thoughtful care went far beyond translation and interpretation. They coordinated transportation to participants who would otherwise have no means to attend the class. They also provided meals or snacks because sharing food was culturally important and meaningful to  participants. They treated the participants with respect just as they would have treated them as older adults in their native countries.

The joys of cross-cultural communication and friendship

The class started with about 15 participants, a number that swelled to more than 50. As the weeks went on, they brought in their friends and family to learn together. “It was beautiful!” said Lydia Dumam, an instructor with DRCOG. “Before AMP, people knew each other but were only comfortable within their own cultural community.

AMP brought communities that spoke different languages together and allowed them to share. People were getting along and trying to understand each other.”

The participants were also eager and excited to learn something new.

“In Arabic-speaking countries, mental health has a strong stigma. There is little awareness. They don’t even talk to us about it even though they are our clients," Otaifah said. "But it was surprising that everyone shared about their mental health during the AMP class. That’s how safe they felt in that space.”

It was surprising for the participants to know that they had so much in common despite coming from different countries and speaking different languages. They built friendships despite the differences, sharing their experiences and thoughts. They found a community they felt they belonged to.

“You could see the impacts on individuals when you walked into the room”, said DROG instructor Dumam. “On the graduation date, tears were shed…this curriculum was so powerful.”

New friendships were formed throughout the 10-week workshop. “What we mostly hear from the older adults who have [a non-English language preference] is that they were experiencing isolation before coming to AMP,” Ishiwata said. Even after the workshop has ended, the participants continue to meet casually as friends, breaking the sense of loneliness and isolation.

The offering has been so successful, attracting attention both from media and the governor’s office, that CSU is scaling the program statewide as part of its larger diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. Read more about this effort on CSU’s website.

Photo of SB Ford, refugee program manager for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, awarding an Aging Mastery student his graduation certificate at their ceremony in 2022 courtesy of Zara Otaifah