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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Each year in the United States the celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month takes place from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 by honoring the histories, cultures and contributions of community members who originate or whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America and other Spanish-speaking countries. The month-long tribute celebrates the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society. The observation started in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson as Hispanic Heritage Week and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period starting on Sept. 15 and ending on Oct. 15.

Hispanics have had a profound and positive influence on our country through their strong commitment to family, faith, hard work, and service. They have enhanced and shaped our national character with centuries-old traditions that reflect the multiethnic and multicultural customs of their community.

The term Hispanic or Latino, refers to Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race. On the 2010 Census form, people of Spanish, Hispanic and/or Latino origin could identify themselves as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or "another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin."

According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million people, or 16% of the population of the United States, are of Hispanic or Latino origin. This represents a significant increase from 2000, which registered the Hispanic population at 35.3 million or 13% of the total U.S. population. Hispanics are the largest minority in the U.S, with majority (70%) living in five states: California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois. The past ten years has seen a 19.16% increase in Hispanic population in New York State, according to Census data. Hispanic language, music, food, and values of family, faith and tradition have enriched American culture and way of life in many ways.

Over the past few decades, a wave of immigration has turned New York into a microcosm of the Americas and enhanced its role as the crossroads of the English- and Spanish-speaking worlds. New York's diverse racial and foreign-born populations speak many different languages and are less proficient in speaking English than they were in 1990. Of the population five years and older, nearly 5 million people, or 28 percent, speak a language other than English at home, this is an increase from the level of 21 percent in 1990.

In accordance with the Older Americans Act and federal and state laws and regulations, New York State Office for the Aging is working with local Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) across the state to ensure the provision of linguistically and culturally appropriate services, including language assistance.

There are two primary types of language assistance services: written communication meaning translation and oral communication meaning interpretation. So in addition to making translations available of vital documents of the most frequently spoken languages, agencies must provide an interpreter at no cost if an individual or family member needs assistance communicating in English.

From Long Island to Montgomery County in Upstate New York, local Area Agencies on Aging are taking actions to improve meaningful access to programs and services for older New Yorkers from all backgrounds and languages.

In 1989 the Westchester County Dept. of Senior Programs & Services (DSPS) created the Coalition on Hispanic Aging. The coalition brought together organizations/agencies, professionals and individuals interested in serving the Hispanic aging population in the county. Since then the coalition has organized events, conducted outreach to the Hispanic population and has served as a network for the community.

A few years later, DSPS created a newsletter in Spanish called "Generaciones" in order to communicate with the Spanish-speaking older adults. This newsletter is published three times a year and currently reaches about 1700 households.

DSPS directories, fliers and invitations to special events are translated into Spanish, updated every year and made available to Spanish-speaking seniors. The Department has also created a website with information in Spanish for older residents, their families and caregivers.

Spanish-speaking older adults can receive information and assistance, including Health Insurance Information, Counseling and Assistance Program (HIICAP) information via a dedicated phone line or have the option to visit the Department to meet with a staff member who would provide assistance in Spanish.

For the past 19 years, DSPS and the Coalition on Hispanic Aging have organized an annual Healthy Living conference for Spanish-speaking seniors. The conference draws over 200 participants from across the county each year. In addition, Spanish-speaking clients are invited to other public events, such as the Salute to Seniors, the annual Health & Fitness Day, the annual barbecue at Saxon Woods Park, Golden Harvest, Seniors Law Day and others.

In Montgomery County, the Office for the Aging Director David Jordan and Advisory Board are committed to building a service delivery system that meets the strengths and needs of older adults in their service area. Hispanics make up about 20% of the population of the city of Amsterdam in Montgomery County, yet many of them have had very limited contact with Office for the Aging. The Montgomery County Office for the Aging is looking to change that through outreach, communication and service. The office began contracting with a Hispanic owned and operated home care agency, Home Helpers, to ensure culturally competent service delivery.

The office provides regular informational sessions in Spanish to Montgomery County's Spanish speaking older adults and caregivers. These sessions provide information on aging services to the community but also helps the Office for the Aging to learn how best to deliver services. The office currently contracts for telephonic interpretation services and is exploring the possibility of adding more bi-lingual service options like on-site bilingual providers. "We want to be sure we delivering services in a way that best meets the needs and preferences of our older population, including Hispanics and other people that historically have not connected with our services," said Director Jordan.

Recognizing the demographic shift toward a more diverse population in NY State, NYSOFA and its aging network partners are working together to assess and meet the needs of all older residents of New York.