Why immigrant seniors should get out on their own, not depend on their children

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Seniors mingle at the India Rainbow Community Services centre

By Sabrina Almeida

A majority of South Asian seniors who have recently immigrated to Canada suffer from loneliness and depression. Asking them how they are, unleashes all the pent up frustration. Most often with the children whom they are living with, followed by the weather and country they don’t feel at home in.

I’ve learned the hard way never to ask this question which can become rather awkward given the fact it’s a natural conversation starter. It’s also difficult not to get drawn into the battle.

Which side you take typically depends on your own situation. If you have disgruntled elderly parents or in-laws living with you, chances are you will sympathize with the children. If not, endless conversations with others about how the kids can do more to make their parents feel comfortable will follow.

Who’s at fault? Should the seniors or their kids and grand kids be doing more to relieve the situation? The answer is not that simple.

While in some cases one or the other party might cause of some of the misery, in others the seniors’ unhappiness stems largely from social isolation.

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Research also shows that immigrant seniors experience higher rates of loneliness when compared to others because of significant life changes with regard to their social network and support system. Language barriers, the loss of a spouse, a smaller friends circle, lack of transportation options, extreme temperatures, conflicted family values and cultural differences from their host society increase their risk of being withdrawn and socially isolated.

Some studies suggest that high levels of caregiving can also cause our elderly to disconnect from others, increasing stress and their feelings of social isolation.

With several studies concluding that a lack of adequate social networks is linked to a 60 per cent increase in dementia and cognitive decline, a more active and integrated lifestyle is critical to an immigrant senior’s physical and mental well-being.

While the challenges are real and a large majority find themselves trapped by them, there are some savvy immigrant seniors who have managed to lead active and fulfilled lives here.

Armed with a positive attitude and determination to make things work, these elderly men and women from India and other South Asian countries have proven that age is no barrier to integration. I have had the pleasure of knowing some of them and they inspire me to never stop ‘learning’ and ‘doing’.

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A nonagenarian from Brampton who passed away a couple of years ago, refused to sit back and wait for his kids to chauffeur him around. He mapped out his route to visit friends and family and ventured out on his own regularly. Even if it meant having to take two or three buses to reach his destination. On his morning walks, he made an effort to get to know his neighbours and became friends with other seniors in his neighbourhood.

One grandmother who self-learned basic computer skills earned the respect and admiration of her granddaughter who later went on to write a story about her.

Another septuagenarian conquered the language barrier by learning English after she emigrated and is now actively involved in volunteering activities in her community. She finds her way around town and is as busy as her working family members. She loves it here.

On the other side of the coin are those seniors whose families have made every attempt to involve them in senior groups and activities including arranging for transportation. However they seem to prefer to bury themselves in a blanket and slip further into the throes of loneliness and depression rather than venture out on their own. Shouldn’t they remember the advice they gave their kids—life is what you make it.

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We don’t need doctors or counsellors to tell us that having solid personal relationships and a social support network contributes to an individual’s physical, mental and emotional health. We all need to feel connected to and valued by others. Experiencing meaningful roles in society through volunteering or simply befriending others in the neighbourhood provides that critical emotional and social connection we and our seniors crave.

Seniors who have made the effort will tell you that they too experienced the loneliness when they came here but the difference was that they decided to do something other than just give in to it.

Community centres, places of worship, settlement agencies, etc. offer plenty of opportunities for seniors to socialize. It’s time we encouraged our elders to take advantage of them. It might take a little bit of persuasion and effort but it’s worth it!

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