Growing Old in Portuguese New Bedford

Sep 16, 2014

Margarida Xavier in her house with her President John F. Kennedy print, which was given to her by her former employer. Xavier worked as a housekeeper with the family in New Bedford for 32 years.
Credit Sarah Reynolds

In a grey duplex on a narrow street in New Bedford, Margarida Xavier fixes a pillow on her living room couch and sits down. She’s 86 years old. She moved to New Bedford from the Azores in Portugal more than 50 years ago, but she still doesn’t speak much English. She’s lived alone since her husband died ten years ago. And it’s been lonely.

But every few weeks she gets a visitor – Lucy Oliveira, the Senior Services Coordinator with the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in New Bedford. Oliveira comes by once or twice a month to visit and to help Xavier read her mail. 

Xavier is a fairly typical senior. She relies on visits like this one to keep her affairs in order. They help make the getting-old a little easier. She’s on Medicare and receives Social Security. She bought her duplex in 1966 for just over 11-thousand dollars, not long after she became a U.S. citizen. Getting old is hard, she says through an interpreter.

The City’s Council on Aging estimates that 20% of people 65 and older in New Bedford are non-native English speakers. When Xavier came to New Bedford, there was already a Portuguese population. And that sense of community made it easier to adjust to life in the U.S. She remembers, there was a Portuguese church to attend, Portuguese food to eat, and not long after she arrived, a Portuguese library was established. New Bedford became a microcosm of Portugal. She didn’t really need to know English. But now, her Portuguese-speaking peers are dying and it’s leaving her isolated in her old age.

The Immigrant Assistance Center sees about 150 immigrant seniors a month. Some come to the office and many are home visits, like this one. Lucy Oliveira says, sometimes what the clients really need is just some company.

Xavier shows us around her house. There are several clocks ticking and statues and paintings of Jesus on every shelf and table. Carefully framed photographs of her family cover the walls. Her parents, her sisters – she points them out.

A large painting of John F. Kennedy has its own wall near the door to her kitchen. It was a gift from her former employer. She used to work for a family in New Bedford as a housekeeper. When the matriarch of the family died, they gave the JFK print to her. She was their housekeeper for 32 years. JFK was President when she and her husband emigrated to the U.S. and when they became citizens.

It’s been lonely getting old, Xavier said. She has some family still around. One of her three sons lives just upstairs in her duplex. He helps her out some, but also has a job as a bus driver and his own life.

Helena DaSilva, Executive Director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center, says the elderly population is the most vulnerable population they serve. They are also bridging the gap between two generations and sometimes it leaves them alone.

“In the Portuguese culture, as you have children, as you get older your children are going to take care of you,” said DaSilva.  “Culturally that’s the belief that exists. Where here in the US, you don’t have children to become your caregivers, you have children so this way they can have their own lives. You give them the tools and they might fly away.”

Margarida Xavier and Lucy Oliveira on Xavier’s couch in her home in New Bedford. Oliveira is the Senior Services Coordinator at the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in New Bedford. She visits Xavier monthly to help her with things like bills and understanding insurance and public assistance issues.
Credit Sarah Reynolds

To escape the loneliness, every Thursday, Xavier gets a ride to Mr. Carmel Church for a weekly get together with her friends. They sit around tables in folding chairs, mostly women. Everyone is over the age of 70.

As they arrive, each person pays $3.25 – it’s $.25 for a game of bingo and $3 for a Portuguese lunch: kale soup with chorizo, pineapple cake, sweet rice cake and hot coffee. Everyone brings bowls and silverware from home to eat their lunch. On a table in the front of the room is a pile of old mugs, vases, books, things from home. They’re the give away prizes for the bingo winners. The bingo chips are old buttons in orange pill bottles waiting for a game on every table. But lunch is first. They scoop hot ladles of soup into their bowls and chat about family and the weather.

Margarida Xavier probably won’t visit Portugal again. Her life here is in her Portuguese New Bedford. And every week she looks forward to getting together with this group that makes her feel at home.

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