Gerontology

Mirta immigrated to the United States when she was fifteen, sneaking across the border with her brother when he and his friends were eighteen and looking for work. Her brother was her primary guardian since Mirtha's father moved to California and her mother became heavily involved in drugs and alcohol. Leaving their impoverished community in central Mexico felt exciting to the young Mirta, as she reflects on her eighty-seven years of life.

Mirta was born in a tiny town near Chihuahua on December 23, 1921. She remembers her childhood well. When she was growing up she played with her brothers outside and helped out her mom at home. They were poor but very happy. Mirta and her four brothers all went to school but not for very long and none of them went to college. Mirta and her friends dreamed that someday they would get rich and live in the city or in the United States but never really had a plan for how they would accomplish their goals. Mirta left behind many, many childhood friends, cousins, and other family members when she crossed the border. She planned on returning but has only visited a handful of times since her mother passed away in the 1990s.

As a girl Mirta worked mainly at home helping her mother. She and her mother would go shopping and cook and clean. Gender roles were highly stratified in her community. The women did most of the house chores like cooking and the men did heavy chores like fixing the roof. Women were in charge of family-related issues, and men and women socialized differently. Unemployment was rampant.

When she moved to the United States everything changed for Mirta. She spoke no English and knew no one but her brother and his friends. It was so difficult to find a job because she was underage and illegally entered the country and therefore school was not an option. Her brother vowed to take care of her, but they needed extra money to pay the rent so Mirta got some odd jobs babysitting and housekeeping. Then she spent many years working for a textile company before leaving that job for a well-paying live-in position as a housekeeper for a very wealthy family in Los Angeles.

Mirta's father migrated north of the border to help feed his family when Mirta was six. He promised he would return but never did, instead only sending the occasional care package with cash inside and a few candy treats or toys. Mirta searched for her father fervently when she and her brother moved to the United States but neither has seen or heard from him again. Because her mother started slipping into an unhealthy lifestyle she became less and less focused on the family and Mirta's older brother Tomas acted as the head of the house. Finally, Tomas left for the United States and two years later Mirta and her brother Jose made the move too. The youngest sibling in the family, Manuel, moved to Mexico City to pursue a career as a singer and became relatively successful working in bars and at parties. Manuel and Jose are both still living, but Jose is in a nursing home and in poor health. Mirta's mother passed away in the 1990s, and Tomas died of a heart attack just last year.

Mirta claims that the most significant events in her life included her crossing the border and her eventually piecing together a life in the United States. She married a nice Mexican man when she was twenty and has three children with him. His death was, according to Mirta, the most tragic event that affected her and has had a tremendous impact on her health and overall well being. Since her husband Ronaldo died, Mirta has been uncharacteristically depressed. I selected Mirta as an interview subject because she has led a rich and varied life. Like me, she is a bilingual Mexican-American. Moreover, Mirta's recent loss of her husband can shed light on the way seniors deal with grief, especially the Latin American elderly. The impact of her emotional state on her physical health will also be explored.

A gracious and warm interviewee, Mirta made me feel instantly comfortable when we sat down for the discussion and she opened up to me willingly. She credits her brothers for providing her with the strength and optimism to succeed and believes herself to be a successful woman. Noting the courage it must have taken her and her brother to cross the border as teenagers, Mirta claims that the younger generations in the United States and elsewhere lack the same type of fortitude, work ethic, and sense of responsibility that her generation had. She also feels that debauchery and disrespect have become scourges in our society and has devoted much of her life to church-related activities to insulate herself from what she perceives as moral degradation. Mirta's views on gender, sexuality, family values, religion, and work create a rich matrix of information that illuminates the generation gap as well as the culture gap. Her perspectives on issues like aging and health differ significantly from those of other Americans without Mirta's Mexican background.

Mirta lives with her eldest daughter. Her health has deteriorated since the death of her husband, but Mirta has only been hospitalized with minor complications and has no serious illnesses. Mirta claims that strong family ties are the most important feature of good health and credits her daughter's love for keeping her strong. Used to the responsibility of family for their elders, Mirta disparages the way American seniors live lonely, isolated lives. Her views on aging and on social responsibility mirror my own, and I appreciate hearing Mirta's adamant views about the duties individuals have toward their elders.

From Mirta's perspective, her greatest contribution to the interview and what she would like to tell young people is exactly that: how to honor family and tradition. Her eyes brightened when she spoke about her affection for her children and her grandchildren, all of whom she regularly sees. Mirta is reticent about religion but is a practicing Catholic. She attends church with her family whenever possible and church is a significant part of her social life. Mirta also derives most of her core values from Catholicism: her sense of moral duty especially. Her values are conservative, including strong views toward extramarital sex and abortion. She laments what she feels is a breakdown of traditional morals and values in American society and yet tolerates social change and diversity. Her perspective is refreshing.

Our textbook mentions the burgeoning elder population in the United States. Although she was not born in the United States, Mirta is a part of the changing demographic landscape in America. Her experiences with the health care system are typical for women in Mirta's situation: women who struggled with cultural assimilation and the language barrier in addition to poverty. Acquiring her green card helped Mirta obtain some of the social and health services she needed. Her sponsors were her employers for over twenty years: a wealthy Los Angeles family that also offered Mirta English lessons. Even with legal status as a resident, Mirta was never able to afford medical insurance. Her employers paid for a few of her doctors' visits and her children helped her out too. Mirta's story bears witness to the tremendous stress placed on the nation's elderly demographic due to financial constraints.

Another book concept the interview elucidated relates to Chapter Two and the biological and physiological changes associated with aging. Mirta is thankful for her generally good health; she attributes her body's robustness to her healthy lifestyle habits because she refrains from smoking and drinking. She is not overweight, and although her blood pressure is high Mirta does not suffer from any serious ailments. Mirta complains about her arthritis when I probe further. She accepts the natural aging of the body with grace, and although she does note that she cannot enjoy many of the activities she once did Mirta walks every day. With the family dog to keep her company while the rest of the household is away at work and school, Mirta staves off loneliness and despair. The loss of her husband remains a core psychological issue for Mirta but she has never seen a professional counselor. The church advisors are the only people she turns to for guidance, but Mirta has never been able to extensively discuss the depression she is experiencing with anyone but caring family members. Therefore, the concepts addressed in Chapter Three related to the psychosocial aspects of aging also became relevant in our interview. Mirta reads regularly and although she does admit to short-term memory loss she demonstrates keen mental acumen. She does not use a computer and does not own a cell phone. Her cognitive functioning has deteriorated considerably over the past five years, and Mirta is only partly aware of her lapses in memory and concentration. Because of Mirta's emphasis on family ties,…