(WOMENSENEWS)–For many women in their 60s and older, Social Security checks are the all-important means of survival.

But for older female immigrants those benefits often don’t exist. After spending their working lives taking care of their families or working off-the-books in low-wage jobs, they don’t qualify.

So what do they do? The answer, according to a recent study by a New York group, is many just keep on working.

"These women are an invisible population," says Ana Oliveira, president and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation, an alliance that seeks to improve the financial well-being of women and girls, the group that produced the report. "Unless one stands in school yards to note how many grandmothers are picking up their grandchildren who depend on them, it can be all too easy to assume that these women are enjoying a well-deserved rest after years of family raising responsibilities."

Instead, lacking retirement income or savings, they survive by doing the same traditional women’s work they have done all along: caring for family. While it used to be for their children, now it is for grandchildren and disabled relatives.

"The vast majority of immigrant women came to New York City to take care of their families or be taken care of by their families," says Susan Leicher, author of the report, who spoke with Women’s eNews in the foundation’s office. "Once ensconced in these families, few women were encouraged or even permitted to venture far out. As a result,

they had little chance to master English, become citizens and acquire financial assets for their old age."

A Startling Portrait

Thirty-one percent of older New Yorkers–most of them women–are living in poverty, Leicher finds and her study paints a startling portrait of the city’s older adults, specifically women of color and immigrant women.

In 1965 when the
Older Americans Act was enacted and the city’s major aging services initially developed, 85 percent of older New Yorkers were white, had been here for years, were fluent in English and had become citizens.

But today, Leicher says, 40 percent of New York City’s seniors are non-white, 46 percent were born abroad. In the past, most senior-headed households had at least one spouse who had worked on the books and was eligible for Social Security as well as Medicare and Medicaid.

The foundation’s report spotlights New York City and offers some of the few sources of information on what is happening to immigrant women as they move into later life.

Another report offers insights on the Chicago area. There, Mexican-American women have little or no retirement savings, finds a December 2013 study by Karen Richman of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies in South Bend, Ind.

Three-fourths of the women interviewed at a senior citizens center had an average income of less than $10,000 a year. Although the women, whose average age was 73,

had worked for 40 years, Social Security benefits were their only financial asset.

Half of the participants expected some form of support from their families in old age. The women had an average of three children. Two-thirds of the women were widows and divorcees. Six out of seven had limited English skills.

Richman noted that the results challenged conventional economic theory, which attributes the lack of financial assets for retirement to poverty and insufficient lifetime resources.

Cultural differences are important too. Researchers found that even when they were eligible for employer-sponsored pension programs, Mexican-Americans were less likely to take advantage of savings opportunities than were other demographic groups.

Instead, Mexican-Americans often build "social wealth" as a substitute for financial assets in their retirement planning, Richmond concluded. They "invest" in people, with the expectation of future return, by contributing gifts, services, money and time as well as affective support.

Over 60 percent of the women said "it is good to be generous to others so that they will be generous to you."

A focus group found that adult children of Mexican-American women are willing to provide support. One woman said she felt a responsibility to take care of her mother because she had seen her mother take care of her grandmother. Another woman said she and her husband hoped to build a big house with extra rooms for their mothers.

But the family support system cannot be counted on to cover all the needs of older women.

Incorporating New Populations

Leicher’s 40-page report about New York recommends that the city’s 250 senior citizens centers increase their efforts to incorporate new populations into their activities.

"Just because an older Korean woman lives with her family doesn’t mean she is not isolated and lonely, most of the time," Kyung B. Yoon, executive director of the Korean-American Community Foundation, told researchers.

"There are strong language and generational barriers," Yoon said. "An older woman’s adult children may be too tired or preoccupied to pay much attention to her when they get home from work. But in our community, seniors hesitate to go outside the home to seek help because it might reflect badly on their children. It is a matter of saving face."

Fortunately, senior citizens centers are meeting the challenge.

"If I were to name the single best development in aging services over the past few years," a center leader told Leicher, "it would be increased emphasis on physical activity. I’ve seen women who used to just come here to sit quietly all day take on a whole new life, once we got them on the dance floor. Exercise supports vitality; it supports socialization. It’s a direct path to better health."

Leicher also recommends more "grandparent family apartment complexes," which are large enough to accommodate multiple generations and provide activities and services that foster close bonds between the generations.

Other communities, such as Baton Rouge, La., are establishing such complexes with a mix of public and private funds. Its Grandparents House includes three two-story buildings with 10 units of two-bedroom apartments.

The 2010 Census found a great need for such housing: 1-in-4 grandparent caregivers lived in overcrowded conditions. More than 1-in-4 spent half their income on rent.

Immigrant organizations like the Mexican-American Opportunity Foundation are providing more services for elderly immigrants.

The nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1983 to serve disadvantaged individuals and families throughout California, has established a senior Hispanic information and assistance program. It works with Latino seniors in Los Angeles to provide everything from transportation to home modification to caregiver conferences.