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PhD Student Mandana Mostofi Researches Successful Aging of Iranian Immigrants

Mandana Mostofi

  Mandana Mostofi, a PhD in Clinical Psychology student at Palo Alto University (PAU), is conducting her dissertation research on the successful aging of older adults who immigrated from Iran to the United States. Mandana, a first-generation Iranian immigrant herself, is working to share the voices of older Iranian adults and raise awareness about the unique aspects of their lived experiences.    “Through my dissertation research, I want to learn about successful aging from the perspective of older Iranian adults living in America,” says Mandana. “With this knowledge, I plan to lead the creation and improvement of services and opportunities that would support older Iranian adults in aging successfully.”    Mandana will conduct her research as part of the PAU Risk and Resilience lab, run by Professor Lisa Brown, PhD, ABPP. “There is a high population of older Iranian adults in the United States, especially in California. It is unknown if their needs are being adequately met,” says Dr. Brown. “Mandana’s research is important because it will highlight what services and resources contribute to successful aging.”  (To participate in this study, go to the end of this article to learn how).  

Growing Up in Two Different Worlds

  Mandana was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, with her two older sisters. Her maternal grandfather fled the country during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He settled in Oakland, California, and then applied for his daughter to receive a green card to join him. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the green card became finalized, allowing the then 9-year-old Mandana to visit her grandfather in the Bay Area. “In Iran, there’s a greater emphasis on community, so in the U.S., I felt out of place because my expectations of closeness, emotional connection, and interdependence were often not met.”   However, Mandana also recognizes the benefits of living in America. “The other day, I was biking around my neighborhood, and thought, ‘If I were biking and wearing these casual clothes in Iran, I could be arrested’,” says Mandana. “As a teenager, I could’ve gotten arrested for so many things: wearing my headscarf too far back, chatting with a boy on the street, showing any more skin than my face, hands, and ankles. In the 2000s, when capri pants were in fashion, there were many arrests, and government fanatics would run around and cut women on their lower legs. Now that I live in the U.S., I consider myself incredibly lucky for having the safety to live a life that is closer to my truth and express myself more freely.”   Her family permanently moved to Santa Clara when Mandana was 19 years old. At that time, she enrolled at De Anza College and later transferred to UC Berkeley, graduating in 2015 with honors in psychology. She spent two years as a behavioral coach in San Clara County’s juvenile justice and family court systems. This exposed her to mental health work centered on trauma and psychosocial rehabilitation. During these years, in her early 20s, Mandana began to adjust and assimilate into American culture.   “The empowering aspect of being bicultural is that you can have the best of both worlds,” says Mandana. “I deeply identify with the Iranian value of community, so I’ve started to invest more in developing close connections and finding my community here. I also appreciate the American values of personal boundaries and having less pressure to conform to social expectations. Even though there is so much about Iran that I miss, the Bay Area is my home now.”     While Mandana was attending UC Berkeley, her grandmother and great-aunt immigrated to the Bay Area and moved in with the family in Santa Clara. By spending time with her grandmother, who was experiencing cognitive decline, Mandana became interested in working with older adults. She was deeply impacted by the many challenges her family experienced during this time, and her new career interest became a combination of trauma work and geriatric mental health.   “Living with my family and grandma in both Iran and U.S., I realized that the older someone is when they move to the U.S., the harder it is to adjust,” says Mandana. “It’s very stressful to navigate the social or healthcare systems in another country, especially if you are not fluent in their language. And on top of that, you no longer have the safety net of community to help you adjust. I feel blessed for having the opportunity to be with my grandmother, not only when she needed caregiving, but also to bring fun, laughter, and connection to her life.”     To pursue mental health as a career, Mandana decided to attend graduate school and become a clinical psychologist. In 2016, she attended an open house at PAU and listened to Dr. Brown speak about her research as a clinical psychologist working with trauma and older adults. Mandana found her mentor and started at PAU in 2017. “I have so much love and respect for Dr. Brown as a professor and a human being,” says Mandana. “She’s been a wonderful mentor for me.”  

Future Plans

  Mandana’s family immigrated to the U.S. for better opportunities for their three daughters. But most Iranians are forced to flee the country because they have been threatened by the Islamic Republic, the political regime that has been in power for 40+ years. Many try to leave Iran due to government oppression against their sociopolitical ideologies, religion, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation. Since the Islamic Revolution, there have been multiple waves of emigration from Iran, including many minorities and activists seeking refuge outside of their home country.   “I am grateful for the peace, safety, freedom, and empowerment that I have experienced in America,” says Mandana. “I firmly believe that everyone in this world deserves these same basic rights, which is why I want to contribute to social change so that these liberties can be a reality for future generations.”   Although Mandana cannot change Iran’s regime (any time soon, at least), she is doing what she has the power to do—earn a PhD in clinical psychology and open a center that improves the lives of older Iranian adults.    Iranian adults who have immigrated later in life have trouble assimilating into American culture for many reasons. Not only is there a reduced emphasis on community, but many lose social or economic power, which has a negative effect on psychological wellbeing.    “Perhaps they were a doctor back in Iran, but their degree isn’t valid here in the US, so now they work as a caregiver or a cashier,” says Mandana. “Not only does their socioeconomic status change but their identity and sense of confidence and purpose are greatly challenged. These adults have sacrificed so much so that their children can have greater opportunities, so I want to support their aging process.”    Mandana’s dream is to open a multidisciplinary community center offering a variety of services specific to older Iranian adults, such as therapy, respite services, educational workshops, assistance with technology, nutrition and exercise classes for healthy aging, religious gatherings, and of course recreational group activities where they can connect with others who understand their cultural and linguistic roots.    “It would be amazing to collaborate with a child-care center so that the different generations could interact, play games, dance, and read poetry together,” says Mandana. “Poetry is a big part of our culture. At my center, I’d love to see people of all ages sitting in a circle reading the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, as they do in Iran. That would warm my heart.”   _____     Mandana is using her PhD dissertation as an opportunity to study Iranian adults over the age of 60 to gain a better understanding of what matters most to them during this stage in their lives. In her research, Mandana will use surveys to explore older Iranian adults’ perspectives on successful aging and how culture impacts their responses. Answers to these questions will inform the services and opportunities Mandana wishes to provide to older Iranian adults in her future as a psychologist.     If you are aged 60 or above, originally from Iran and living in the United States, and want to learn more about how to participate in Mandana’s research to improve mental health services and opportunities for older Iranian adults, please contact Mandana at