At St. Martin de Porres Senior Center in Alexandria, Ve Thi Hoang, 81, a retired schoolteacher who came here from Vietnam in 1975, studies English. Puerto Rican-born Jose Gutirrez, 64, a former night watchman, sings in the choir. And Young Choy, 74, a Korean who once worked as a clothing salesman, shoots pool with friends.
"I am a stranger here, and I have so much to learn," said Hoang, a great-grandmother who is regarded as one of the center's most enthusiastic students. Fluent in French, Hoang is enrolled in the center's class in English as a second language.
Senior citizens such as Hoang, Gutirrez and Choy are typical of the growing number of elderly people who belong to ethnic and racial minorities in the Washington area and across the nation.
About 3 million of the estimated 28.5 million Americans who are older than age 65 are members of minority groups: blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. And the number of the minority elderly is increasing rapidly -- by more than 2 percent a year, compared with 1.6 percent for the elderly population as a whole and about 1 percent for the general population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Specialists on aging say this trend has far-reaching implications for research, public policy and community services throughout the country.
At its annual meeting here this month, the Gerontological Society of America helped to spotlight the issue by taking several steps. The group, the country's largest such professional organization, broad- ened the role of its Task Committee on Minorities to press for more research on minority elderly and increase the number of researchers who are minorities.
"We have come to a consensus that now is the time to begin," said society President Barbara Silverstone.
Advocates of the increased task committee made a "compelling case for how concentrated research of minority elderly would illuminate data useful to everyone," she added.
According to Silverstone and others, emerging issues that may warrant research include:Black women are less susceptible to osteoporosis, an age-related bone disease, than white women, possibly because black women have denser bone material. White elderly men are less likely to develop diabetes and hypertension than black elderly men. The reason is unclear, specialists say, but one theory is that the difference may be related to differences in health care and nutrition among whites and blacks. Among Asians, elderly men outnumber elderly women -- in contrast to the pattern among whites and most minorities, in which women tend to live longer. Elderly white men have a relatively high suicide rate; elderly black women have a low rate. Among the 65-plus group, there are 38.1 suicides per 100,000 white men compared with 10.9 for black men, 9.3 for white women and 1.6 for black women. Although blacks have a greater mortality rate than whites in infancy, adulthood and early old age, blacks who live to extreme old age -- 75 years and older -- tend to outlive whites in that same age group.
Cultural differences in attitudes toward aging may need to be considered by policymakers and researchers, according to Fernando M. Torres-Gil, associate professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California and former staff director of the House Select Committee on Aging.
"Many Hispanic elders are not treated as old people; they are treated as members of an intergenerational family," said Torres-Gil. "Why force older Hispanics into nursing homes, whereas if we had respite care or home health care, they could remain at home with a family that is willing to take care of them."
Minorities traditionally have been the most disadvantaged among the elderly because they tend to have lower incomes and less health care than the general population, aging specialists say.
But, Torres-Gil argued, additional research could help bring about changes. "The best way to ensure that tomorrow's elderly will have a relatively secure old age is to start now to invest in minority youth and in their employment and education potential," he said.
The presence of the minority elderly in the Washington area is particularly striking in "melting pot" senior centers such as St. Martin's, which is on Taney Avenue in Alexandria's Landmark community, an ethnically diverse neighborhood. The center is sponsored by the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington and receives aid from the Alexandria Office on Aging along with other organizations.
About 25 percent of the seniors who live nearby and participate in the center's programs are Asians, mostly Koreans, according to center director Maureen Franks. Thirteen percent are black and 12 percent are Hispanic. Fifty percent are white.
Because eight foreign languages are spoken by the center's participants, Franks looks for activities that transcend the problems of languages.
"It is a challenge," Franks said. "But we do it through needlework, which can be demonstrated, not spoken; through exercises, which we can show people and they can follow; through music, and through trips to museums, parks and fall outings to the mountains."
Also, the seniors make ceramics and other handicraft items. About a dozen of the women are completing a double-bed quilt for a raffle. "We will sell tickets to raise money to pay for the trips," Franks said.
Franks has started a vegetable and flower garden on the grounds behind the center. "We have space for about 15 gardeners," she said. "The seniors sign up for individual plots -- about 15 feet long and about six feet wide."
Seniors grow whatever they want. "The Spanish have certain things they like -- certain kinds of beans," Franks said. "The Koreans garden from early spring to late fall growing different greens." Some ordinary vegetables also are grown, such as green beans, carrots and tomatoes. At harvest time, the seniors share the vegetables.
The 75 seniors who visit the center regularly form a diverse microcosm and range in age from 60 to 93. They have different educational backgrounds, come from about a dozen countries and have varying levels of health and mobility.
One participant, Sac N. Nguyen, 70, is a self-taught accordionist from Vietnam. Harold Smith, an 85-year-old black resident born in Key West, is a retired taxi driver.
In many regions, government and community leaders are designing programs aimed at the minority elderly.
In the Washington area, services for the elderly generally are racially and ethnically integrated, officials say. But special language programs have been targeted at Hispanic and other groups.
Local governments help finance some services for elderly minorities. The D.C. Office on Aging provides financing for a senior center at the Chinese Cultural Center at 755 Eighth St. NW and for a Latin senior center at the Education Organization for United Latin Americans at 1842 Calvert St. NW.
Prince George's County provides financing for transportation and translation services for Spanish elderly who need assistance in getting medical treatment. Montgomery County has two Spanish-speaking staff members in its division of elder affairs and one clerical worker who can speak and help translate Vietnamese. Fairfax County has staff members in its Area Agency on Aging who are fluent in Spanish and Japanese.
At the gerontological society's five-day meeting here, researchers reported on 28 projects focusing on minorities. They included a study of elderly Salvadorans who have settled in the Washington area with their children and grandchildren, research on elderly Koreans living in New York, and an analysis of intergenerational relationships and other issues in a three-generation black family.