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Minority Groups

The four largest minority groups in the United States are African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

Using the Internet, research about the above mentioned minority groups in the United States. Based on your research and understanding, respond to the following:Select at least two of the minorities listed above and describe how being a member of that minority group might affect aging. Be sure to include the role of family and social support.Highlight some health and chronic conditions that are prevalent in the chosen minority groups.Describe the role of seniors in the chosen minority groups. Explain the changes in the role of seniors over the years.Explain any future challenges for the selected minority groups in the years ahead.

Aging In Other Times At Other Places 

The proportion of older people in developed as well as developing nations of the world has been increasing. An aging population creates new economic and social challenges for nations. 

Using the Internet, research about the economic or social challenges of nations with an aging population. Based on your research and understanding, compare and contrast seniors in the U.S. with seniors in another country of your choice. Your comparison should include, but should not be limited to, the following: Changes in demographics

Family roles and social supports

Advances in technology

Living arrangement


Health issues

Population aging will affect different societies in different ways. The United Nations divides the world’s nations into two groups—the more developed and the less developed—based on their demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. “The less developed regions include all regions of Africa, Asia (excluding Japan), Latin America and the Caribbean, and Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand). The more developed regions include all other regions plus the three countries excluded from the less developed regions” (United Nations, 2002a, p. iv).

The developed nations, such as France, Sweden, and the United States, will have large proportions of older people in their populations. The proportion of older people in most of these countries has increased gradually over many decades. Their populations will get older in the future. Some developed countries, such as Japan, had relatively young populations until recently. They have seen rapid population aging in recent years.

The less developed nations, such as China and Viet Nam, already have large numbers of older people. In 2000, for example, the majority of the world’s older persons (54%) lived in Asia (Kinsella & Velkoff, 2001). These countries also have large numbers of young people (due to high birth rates). For this reason, compared with the developed nations, they will have lower proportions of older people in their populations. Still, the large numbers of older people will put new demands on these societies.

The less developed nations also include very undeveloped nations, such as the countries of Africa, Oceania, parts of the Caribbean, and parts of Latin America. These least developed nations will have large numbers of older people in their populations. They will have the least resources to cope with the demands of population aging.

Each type of society will face population aging in the years ahead. Each will face different challenges as their older populations grow. And each will need to make different responses to the challenge of population aging.

This chapter (1) looks at population aging in three types of societies, (2) describes some of the challenges created by population aging, and (3) considers population aging in the United States and its impact on American society.THE CHALLENGE OF POPULATION AGINGWhat Is Population Aging?

When we talk about aging we generally refer to a person or even an animal or a thing. But what do we mean when we say that populations age?

Demographers, experts in the study of population change, use at least three measures to describe population aging: (1) the absolute number of older people in a population, (2) the median age of the population, and (3) the increased proportion of older people. These measures allow comparisons between societies and between a single society at two points in time. A population ages when any of these measures increase. Populations with large numbers of older people or with high proportions of older people are said to be old or aging societies.

The following discussions of societies will often make reference to the number or proportion of older people in the society. Be aware that a society can have a large number of older people, but still have a relatively small proportion of its population in old age. The less developed nations show this pattern. This kind of society will have a high birth rate and a large number of young people. More developed nations will have a low birth rate and a high proportion of older people. Each of these types of societies faces different challenges as they respond to population aging.THE DEMOGRAPHIC TRANSITION

The demographic transition describes a pattern of population change that took place in Western nations over the past 250 years. The developing nations will probably go through this transition, and some of these nations have already started the process. Figure 3.1 shows the population trends over time that created the transition.

The developed nations that have gone through the demographic transition—from high to low birth and death rates—face new issues related to a large older population. For one thing, the demographic transition leads to a new perspective on the life cycle. Nearly all children can now expect to live to old age. Most middle-aged people can expect to live a decade or more in retirement, and many older people will live to late old age. A larger population than ever before will live more than 100 years.FIGURE 3.1  Stages of the Demographic Transition

Source: Reprinted from “Demography of Aging” by G. C. Myers, in R. H. Binstock & L. K. George, Eds., Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, 3rd ed. (p. 25). Copyright 1990, with permission from Elsevier.

The developing nations that go through this transition will experience similar benefits and challenges as their populations age (see Figure 3.2).THREE TYPES OF SOCIETIES AND POPULATION AGINGThe Less Developed Nations

The less developed nations of Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Caribbean, and Latin America make up three quarters of the world’s population. Most of these nations have young populations with a small proportion of older people. In some cases they have as few as 2% of their populations age 65 and over. These countries will age in the years ahead, though they will still have relatively small proportions of older people.

African nations (some of the least developed nations) will average only a little over 4% age 65 and over in the year 2025. Overall the developing nations will average only about 8% in that year (United Nations, 2002a). High birth rates will keep the proportion of older people relatively low in these countries, but these nations will see explosive growth in the number of older people.

“By the year 2025,” Myers (1990, p. 27) says, “over two-thirds of the world’s older population will be found in the developing countries.” Asia will gain over a quarter of a billion older people. China alone will have 194 million people age 65 and over by 2025. (By comparison, the entire U.S. population will be about 346 million people in that year [United Nations, 2002b].) High fertility in the past and greater survival of older people in the present will produce this explosive growth.

An increase in older people in developing nations will strain current social, health, and economic programs. Sennott-Miller (1994) says that developing nations need more information about their older populations, and they need to plan for an aging society. Countries with social programs and pension plans in place will need to adapt these programs to serve more older people. China provides a good example of a developing nation that faces the challenge of population aging.FIGURE 3.2  Elder Populations in Selected Countries, 2005, Age 65 and Over

Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revisionand World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, Retrieved November 15, 2007, from 3.1  Elder Population Increases, Age 65 and Over from World and Major Regions, 2000 to 2050


Population (in millions)

Increase (2000 as base = 100)













More developed*






Less developed**












Latin America






North America
























*More developed: Europe, Japan, North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

**Less developed: Africa, Asia (excluding Japan), Latin America/Caribbean, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

The absolute number of older people given in this chart: (1) shows the distribution of older people worldwide; (2) allows for a comparison of the size of older populations that each country and region will have to deal with; and (3) shows the growth rate of the older population in each region. This growth rate gives an idea of how much demographic change each society will undergo.

This table shows that, worldwide, the less-developed countries have a larger number of older people than the more developed countries (although they have smaller percentages of older people). It also shows that the older population will increase in the less developed countries at a faster rate than in the more developed countries.In 2000, for example, Asia had five and a half times more older people than North America. This reflects the larger size of the total Asian population. Projections show that the Asian older population will increase at a faster rate than the North American older population. This reflects increased life expectancies in Asian countries. By the year 2050, compared to North America, Asia will have more than nine and a half times more older people.



Bart Hircus runs exercise classes for older people at housing complexes and recreation centers for seniors. A few years ago, a Native American senior center invited him to hold some fitness classes. They assigned him a room and announced the class in advance. He came to the center eager to work with this new group of people. About 10 people, men and women, showed up for his session. He began with warm-up stretches and then put on some peppy music. He launched into his routine and his usual patter. But he noticed that after a few minutes his students began to drift out to a nearby patio for a smoke and some talk. People would wander in and out to see how the class was going or to watch Bart do the exercises. This went on for about 30 minutes. Finally, Bart gave up the exercising and began talking with the center members. He found that they didn’t get the point of all this jumping around. They had worked hard all their lives. Some of them had trapped, hunted, and lived in the bush. They associated exercise with hard work. They couldn’t understand why anyone would get sweated up and not get paid for it. To them this looked like work, and they wanted no part of it. After he gave up trying to get them to exercise, Bart enjoyed his experience. He says he learned a lot from listening to these people and from coming to understand their points of view. He does things differently today when he presents a program to a minority group audience. For one thing, he gets to know something about the culture and background of the group before he begins. For another, he explains the purpose of the program and its benefits in advance. Finally, he tailors the program to the background and experience of his students. Gerontologists know that culture and life events shape an older person’s worldview. For example, many older minority members face disadvantages today due to discrimination they have faced throughout their lives. Other minority members have just arrived in the United States and have little knowledge of American society, its language, and its customs. Gerontologists have learned that cultural and economic barriers can keep minority older people from living a satisfying old age. They also know some of the things that can bring down these barriers: offering a service in a minority language, using minority staff to deliver the service, or locating services in settings that will attract minority members. The study of minority aging expands our understanding of aging today and suggests ways to improve older minority members’ lives. This chapter looks at (1) the size, composition, and socioeconomic status of minority groups; (2) the experience of aging as a minority group member; and (3) creative responses to the challenge of minority aging. WHO ARE THE MINORITY ELDERLY?1 The term dominant group in the United States applies to the white population. Whites make up a numerical majority of the population in the United States. More importantly, this group has the most power and controls most of the social and economic resources in the country. The encyclopedia defines a minority as a culturally, ethnically, or racially distinct group living within a larger society. Minority group members have a sense of peoplehood and shared origins (Angel & Angel, 2006). In addition, minority group members often face prejudice and discrimination within the larger society. Sociologists include women and gays in this definition, but here we focus on minorities based on race, ethnicity, and national origin. The term minority as we use it here applies to the four largest groups recognized by the U.S. Census: African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian American/Pacific Islanders (APIs), and American Indians/Alaskan Natives (see Figure 6.1). Many people think of the United States as a melting pot. The U.S. takes in people from around the world and turns them into Americans. This image arose in the early years of the 20th century when European immigrants poured into this country. Many of them settled in cities on the East Coast and adapted to American customs to survive. The melting pot ideal encouraged children to leave behind their parents’ language and customs. Assimilation opened the way for these people to enter middle-class American life. FIGURE 6.1 Population of the U.S. by Racial and Ethnic Group, 2005 Note: The figures in the chart total less than 100% due to rounding. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States. Table No. 14. Resident population by race, Hispanic origin, and age: 2000 and 2005, 2007. Retrieved: November 16, 2007, from 1Minority groups do not agree on a single term to describe their groups. Also, government reports differ in their designation of each group. Here, I use the most commonly used terms at this time. I use the terms African American or black; Hispanic, Latino, or Latina; and American Indian or Native American to describe each of these groups. The term Hispanic American refers to people who are Hispanic or Latino. Hispanics may be any race. The term African American refers to people who identify themselves as African American or black. I use the term white to refer to whites. This view now seems naive. Large numbers of Jews, for example, immigrated to the United States early in the 1900s. They adopted the customs and culture of the dominant population, but they held on to a strong group identity. The same can be said for Asian Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans. People understand the need to assimilate in their public lives. But they often maintain their culture through religious practices, festivals, and food. Ethnic identity survives for many generations and may even grow stronger as later generations celebrate their ethnicity. The United States today looks more like a pluralistic society where many racial and ethnic groups exist side by side. Angel and Angel (2006, p. 94) say that “at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the population of the United States is socially, demographically, and culturally almost unrecognizably different than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.” For one thing, the mix of these ethnic groups looks different today than in the last century. Migrants in the early years of the 20th century came mostly from Europe. Today, migrants come from all over the world, primarily from Asia and Latin America (He, Sangupta, Velkoff, & De Barros, 2005). These new groups, compared to the majority white population, have high fertility rates. As a result, by the middle of this century one in two Americans will come from Asian, Latin America, or African American descent. The white majority of today will become one of many minority groups. As in the past, today’s migrants retain some of their original culture. Immigrants bring to American society new beliefs, new cuisines, and new customs. Even third- or fourth-generation Americans show pride in their Italian, Polish, Chinese, or other ancestry. More recent immigrants exhibit even closer ties to their original language and culture. Spanish, Chinese, and other TV stations find audiences throughout the country, as do newspapers and magazines published in languages other than English. Ramon Valle, a sociologist at San Diego State University, said that an assimilation continuum exists. The continuum runs from very traditional to bicultural to very assimilated. People can fit in various places on this continuum for different areas of their lives. A minority group member may be very assimilated in the office, but adopt a traditional worldview at home. An example or two will make this clear. A colleague of mine from India wears a suit and tie to the office every day. He speaks English with only a mild Indian accent, and he shows few outward signs of his ethnic background. But at home he carries on many traditional Indian practices. He eats a vegetarian diet, he reads his tradition’s scriptures, and he performs a puja, or religious ritual, every morning before work. He fits in the bicultural category of Valle’s continuum. He scores high on assimilation in the workplace, but he also scores high on tradition at home. An African American friend would score high on assimilation at the office and in his personal life, but he does not want to be completely assimilated either at home or at work. At work, he stands up for the interests of African Americans and expresses views that highlight his racial identity. He also owns a cottage in rural Virginia near his birthplace. He drives there on long weekends and in the summer to enjoy the rural lifestyle he identifies with his roots. Valle’s assimilation continuum points to the complexity of ethnic and racial identity. It shows that individuals differ in how they identify with, use, and express their race and ethnicity. In part, this reflects personal preference. It also reflects the demands of U.S. society for a common public face. The older population reflects the pluralism of U.S. society. Older people belong to a variety of ethnic and racial minorities. Some of these older people came to the United States from other countries many years ago. Other minority older people were born in the United States but have had their lives shaped by their ethnic or racial identities. Some older minority group members have just arrived in the United States. Some came by choice, to follow their middle-aged children. Others came as refugees. These new immigrants face culture shock as well as issues related to aging. They are challenged by language barriers, difficulties in making new friends, and problems using medical and social services (Longino & Bradley, 2006). Researchers find that diversity exists even within a single minority group (Burr, Mutchler, & Gerst, 2010). Yeo (2009) notes that the Asian group, for example, includes subgroups that differ in education, English ability, and income. The 2000 Census reported an 11.9% poverty rate for the group of older Asians. But poverty rates for subgroups within the Asian group range from 5.6% for Japanese older people to 27.4% for Hmong older people. When researchers report on “Asian” older people they miss the large and important differences within this group. Yeo notes that similar differences exist within the American Indian cultures and the Hispanic population. Hispanic Americans, for example, have come to the United States from Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico,