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
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
“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
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.”