The Miami Herald
Sun, Apr. 25, 2004

A Latin generation fills homes for elderly

Margarita Echeverria, center, plays dominoes with Ana Maria Rodriguez, left, and Olga Rodriguez at Residential Plaza at Blue Lagoon, an assisted-living home in Miami.

Ethnic mix changes as Hispanic families defy tradition of keeping parents with them


At the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Miami Beach, the Tuesday rosary service now overshadows Friday Shabbat. The kitchen hasn't seen a rabbi in five years. And the favorite television program in the activity room, beyond question, is Sabado Gigante.

From Miami to Miami Beach to Hialeah, retirement and nursing homes that once served native-born retirees and the last of the Old World immigrants now cater to a new generation of the foreign-born. Rice and beans, bilingual sing-alongs, dominoes, coffee with a kick -- all are concessions to a new immigrant identity inside dozens of assisted-living facilities around South Florida.

Miami-Dade County's Cuban population is aging. As of the 2000 Census, Cubans older than 65 totaled 147,113, a number comparable to the population of Fort Lauderdale.

More important, immigrants from across Latin America are defying tradition and warming to the decidedly U.S. notion of ending their days in a retirement home. And those facilities are looking for ways to make them feel welcome.

Margarita Vento, 71, reckons she would live in the same home as her husband, Rufino, 90, if they still lived in Cuba. But they chose to grow old together in Miami Beach. Two years ago, his Alzheimer's symptoms became too much. Now she visits him every morning at the Hebrew Home.

''I kept him for a long time in the house,'' she said. ``But he would wander, and the police would have to find him. In Cuba, you have your neighbors, and your family, too. Here, you have no neighbors, no nothing.''

The Hispanic population in Miami-Dade nursing homes such as the Hebrew Home more than doubled between 1990 and 2000. Hispanics overtook non-Hispanic whites in that decade as the largest ethnic group in the homes.

Most South Florida immigrants come from cultures with ancient taboos against expelling elders from the family home. Once here, they tend to fall into typical patterns: nuclear families, two wage earners, growing wealth, shrinking time. All of those forces drive the trend toward institutionalizing elderly loved ones, said Lisandro Perez, a sociology professor at Florida International University.


''Their relationship with their children is not the same, after 40 years in this country,'' said Perez, who has studied elderly Cubans. ``They have grown very independent and apart from each other.''

Jerry Rodriguez, a Miami private investigator, hired full-time help so his Cuban-born father could spend his declining years in the family home, as he wished. When his mother could no longer live alone, Rodriguez tried moving her in with his wife and children. It put a strain on the marriage. So, seven years ago, he moved her into a home. Clara Rodriguez, now 74, lives at the Munné Center in Southwest Miami-Dade.

''It wasn't easy sending her there,'' Rodriguez said. ``It took at least 18 months for everyone to adjust. And she still has the illusion of being able to return to the house.''

Jerry Rodriguez picks up his mother regularly on Sundays and stops by during the week. But Clara Rodriguez has suffered from depression. Sometimes she asks her only son why she can't live at home, as her husband did in his final days.


''It eats up the conscience,'' he said. 'I tell her I'm 42 years old now. I tell her, `Mom, I'm exhausted. I don't have the energy to deal with it anymore, like I did.' ''

Not all immigrant groups have embraced senior homes. Caribbean immigrants, as a group, are not well-represented in Miami-Dade retirement centers. As of the 2000 Census, just 1 percent of people older than 65 of West Indian descent lived in group quarters, the category that includes senior homes, compared with 3.4 percent of Cubans.

Also striking is the virtual absence of Hispanic seniors in the senior homes of Broward County. Despite its large Hispanic population in 2000, Broward had just 173 Hispanics older than 65 living in group quarters; Miami-Dade had 5,968.

In Miami-Dade, several large assisted-living homes have opened precisely to serve the burgeoning clientele of aging Cubans.

One is Residential Plaza at Blue Lagoon. Just 13 years old, the Miami facility holds 350 seniors, nearly all of them Cuban or of other Hispanic origin.

On the first floor on a recent morning, several dozen seniors, mostly women, punched the air and twirled their arms to the beat of an Uruguayan tune.

Dolores Camejo left Cuba with her brother in 1961 after her family's school fell from favor with Fidel Castro. Now her brother is dead, and Camejo doesn't want to burden the niece who is her only relative in Miami-Dade. She has lived at Blue Lagoon for five years.

''I like the people. Everything that we do here; the painting,'' said Camejo, 80. ``We have a lot of activities.''

Among them: a chatty beauty salon, a drugstore with a Cuban coffee machine, daily Latin-themed meal offerings and a bustling domino room.


Other senior homes have acquired their new ethnic identities over time, responding to the changing community outside.

The Hebrew Home, open since 1954, once served low-income Jewish retirees. Its transformation, in the 1980s and 1990s, echoed the decline of Jewish South Beach. Bilingual classes, a Cuban chef, Catholic rosary and communion services came to overshadow kosher tradition and Shabbat. When the home's full-time rabbi -- essential under kosher law -- retired five years ago, there was no need to replace him, according to administrator Jesse Dunwoody.

Of the 96 beds occupied in the nursing home on a recent day, 57 were filled by Cubans and 10 by immigrants from nine other nations. Few observant Jews remain.

``Es tiempo para comer, mi amor. Vamos,'' said Deborah Williams, the Jamaican-born activity manager at the Hebrew Home, guiding a resident's wheelchair into the dining room. In a nearby activity room, the variety-show staple Sabado Gigante is dutifully taped on Saturdays and replayed daily.

Some English-speaking residents confess that they have almost no verbal contact with the Cubans, who typically speak little English. The cross-cultural exchange goes only so far.

''One thing I'll never get used to is all this rice in the diet,'' said Richard Stark, 70, a retiree from Lansing, Ill. ``I like the coffee.''

Shabbat remains curiously popular here. For the Cubans, it's just another activity on the daily list. And it is followed by the ever-popular piano sing-along, conducted, of course, in two languages.

The Cuban community was slow to embrace retirement homes, said Perez, the FIU professor. As evidence, he cited the rise of the Little Havana Activities & Nutrition Center in the 1980s, with its daily offerings for seniors.

''The elderly lived at home, with their children, but the children were out of the home working, and the elderly had nothing to do,'' Perez said. ``They are day activity centers -- day care, if you will, but for the elderly.''

Attitudes have changed. But the taboo against putting an elderly parent into a facility remains.

Dolores Hernandez, the Cuban-born administrator of Blue Lagoon, likens the experience of institutionalizing an elder loved one to ``bringing their kid to kindergarten. Everyone cries.''


The first weeks apart from the family can be emotionally perilous for an elderly immigrant. Employees at Blue Lagoon monitor new arrivals around the clock for the first month, looking for signs of depression. Some homes offer support groups for guilt-ridden children. Their parents struggle to adjust.

''Of course, sometimes I feel lonesome,'' said Clara Rodriguez, at the Munné Center. ``Because I only have one son. But he's a wonderful person, and he identifies with my feelings. He never lets me down. He takes me out every Sunday.''
Herald database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.