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Aging on the Rio Grande

People living far from where the desert sun rises above the Rio Grande tend to think of the border in its most rigid terms — a concrete divide between two countries, made up of two distinct and very separate cultures and lifestyles.

However, living — and aging — in El Paso, TX, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The farthest point west before leaving the state is one of the most unique places in the world — the dynamics are hard to explain and “you have to be there to feel it.”

Being nestled between New Mexico and Mexico creates a unique dynamic in the clients we serve. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, El Paso County’s estimated total population is 840,410. The older adult (60+) population is approximately 128,735. Almost 84%, or 107,931, are minorities, with Hispanic/Latino being the majority. Many of our clients have limited English proficiency, making navigating systems difficult if they are unable to communicate with someone who speaks and understands Spanish.

The population also struggles economically. Over 18%, or 23,816, are reported to be living in poverty in El Paso County. While some might view this as an opportunity to access need-based programs that have a financial means test, we often encounter clients who do not qualify based on factors like citizenship or residency status. Others do not qualify because their earnings are not substantial or documented through the Social Security Administration to indicate that they have “paid into” the system to qualify them for Medicare or Social Security — the programs most older adults rely heavily upon to survive in their later years.

The Area Agency on Aging (AAA) plays a unique role in the aging service provider system in our community. A few of the standard assurances of the Older Americans Act are to serve “older individuals with greatest economic need and older individuals with greatest social need” and “providing services to low-income minority older individuals and older individuals with limited English proficiency.”

These assurances provide the framework for our AAA to serve the unique needs of older adults aging in our border region. This framework has been the backbone to our service delivery system and often the “safety net” that ensures we can help support the needs of older adults seeking assistance from our agency, as well as our aging services partners when their qualifications may prevent them from providing assistance to a client.

While there is never enough funding to support the needs of the older adults and family caregivers of our region, I am grateful for the flexibility that the Older Americans Act provides when serving the needs of those aging on the border. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I am honored to work for the Area Agency on Aging in a border region and have a direct impact on all older adults regardless of socioeconomic and or citizenship status.

Through creative and unique ways, we come together as a community to provide the support necessary despite the circumstances clients may find themselves in. The uniqueness of aging on the border is exactly why border communities are among this country’s most resilient. We are a tapestry of culture, history, language, and community. Much like the American dream, what others see as rigid, unimaginable challenges, we see as opportunities for ingenuity and creativity.

Aging on the Rio Grande offers immense possibilities to empower older adults through access to information and the support systems necessary to age well. This Hispanic Heritage Month and always, I am proud to call El Paso home.

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About Yvette M. Lugo, LMSW

Yvette Lugo is currently serving as the Director for the Rio Grande Area Agency on Aging, a division of the Rio Grande Council of Governments. She has been an employee of the Council of Governments since March 2002. Yvette was originally hired with the AAA as the Caregiver Support Program Coordinator, was promoted to Programs Manager, and then was promoted to serve in her current position as Director in 2008. She has been employed in social services since 1996, where she has worked with several client populations ranging from children to older adults. She is a graduate of Baylor University with a BA in Sociology and the University of Texas at Arlington with a MS in Social Work. Yvette is also a Licensed Master Social Worker in the state of Texas.