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Addressing an aging nation

Sara Alemán, a professor of sociology and social work at Northern Arizona University, is at the forefront of an important avenue of the field: the health needs of America’s elderly. Though much of her work on aging focuses on northern Arizona’s elderly Hispanic and Native American populations, Alemán’s broad aim is to educate American policy makers about ethnic aging policies and why they need to be remedied.

“It’s important, because in ten years one out of every four people will be over the age of 65,” Alemán says. “As a nation, we are not addressing the profound financial and social implications of that demographic shift.”

Alemán joined the university’s sociology and social work department in 1997. Her undergraduate and master’s work had focused exclusively on children and family services. While performing her doctorate program at Brandeis University, however, a light bulb went off — Alemán realized she was more aligned in values with the people who were studying elders. When she asked her adviser about the ramifications of moving away from her core studies of children and families, she recalls his response truly set her on her new path.

“He told me last time that he looked, elders were part of families, too,” Alemán says. “So I stayed with it.”

Now, Alemán uses her expertise to teach and address the issues of an increasingly aging population. As a professor, Alemán’s goal is to raise awareness among students about shifting population demographics in a shrinking world.

“If my students can leave the university with a sense that not everybody looks at the world the same way as we do, they will be much more comfortable in a working environment where they are working with people who are not like them,” she says.

Three years after joining the university, Alemán, along with two other editors, published an important book about aging ethnic populations, entitled Therapeutic Interventions with Ethnic Elders. A study of a dozen aging ethnic groups, Alemán’s book was meant to help social workers and health care professionals to understand the needs of the ethnic elderly.

“What we did is look at the major ethnic elderly populations in the United States and addressed their health needs from a social perspective,” Alemán says. She explains that a social worker caring for the elderly must recognize that one culture may believe in suppressing aspects of emotional health, while another culture may put in folk beliefs — ultimately, it is necessary to distinguish and understand these needs.

According to Alemán, her contribution to the book came as a result of her Flagstaff location.

“A lot of my research has been with Latino elders and Navajo elders,” she says. “I did a major research project for a wellness center out of Tuba City looking at the needs for a daycare center for elders on the Navajo Reservation.”

As a citizen of Flagstaff, Alemán is also passionate about making positive change. During Alemán’s time in Flagstaff, she has passionately served on the boards of many educational institutions, including the Flagstaff Unified School District and the Museum of Northern Arizona. Now, she serves as a mentor in the Blavin Scholars program, helping students on a one-on-one basis and providing support for students on an academic and personal level.

“I stay involved in things that augment my concern about total community needs,” Alemán says. “Education is so important.”

Ultimately, Alemán hopes to raise awareness about cultural needs across a spectrum of communities – from local to national.

“The key problem in addressing cultural needs – especially as it relates to the elderly – is financial,” Alemán says. “My goal is to educate American lawmakers that aging policy is serious and needs attention.”