Using labels, creating boundaries, identifying insiders and outsiders is the stuff of sense making. Without these parameters, our lives lack definition and feel chaotic. But when we hold too tightly to them, our lives are rigid and closed off to the uniqueness that exists within the boundaries we create. When we refer to ‘seniors’, most of us think of someone who is 65 years or older. But we also know there are exceptions to this rule; sometimes we are referring to people 55 years and older. But lumping all people between 55 and 105 together is sometimes too big a categorization. So we refer to ‘younger seniors’ and ‘older seniors’. And on it goes.
We also talk about ‘immigrants’ and ‘the immigrant experience’, as though there is only one type of immigrant and one type of experience. When referring to immigrants, we understand this to mean people who were not born in Canada; this draws our attention to a few things. We become mindful that ‘the immigrant’ may not be familiar with Western culture, language, religion, education, and so on. But this isn’t necessarily the case. An immigrant from America or the UK understands much of Canadian culture, as compared to someone from Central America or South Asia, but the immigrant label is equally applicable.
We require terms like ‘senior’ and ‘immigrant’ to help us meet the needs of large groups of people. Combining these terms draws attention to immigrant seniors’ unique needs. But we must be careful not to miss or ignore the fact that ‘immigrant seniors’ are not a homogeneous group. Isolation within immigrant senior populations manifests in very different, contextual ways.
Immigrant senior isolation looks like this:
A grandmother whose traditional role is to be honoured and cared for in her later years; to rest and to spend time in the courtyard with others her own age. But here, there is no courtyard where friends come and go all day long, and if there are other grandmothers in the neighbourhood, she isn’t sure how to meet them, much less interact with them. What would they talk about? Could they even speak the same language? There is nowhere to go, no one to talk to. Yes, she is resting and physically cared for, but she is lonely and lacks daily purpose.
An elderly couple came to live with their only son and his family. They were excited to get to know and to spend time with their grandchildren. But they quickly discovered that the grandchildren haven’t been encouraged to maintain their first language. The couple do not know English. During the long summer hours while the grandparents and grandchildren are at home with no one to translate, they feel acutely isolated within their own home. The grandchildren do try, saying things like “I’m going to the basement” or “let’s go to the park”, but the couple does not understand what basements and parks are. Interaction with those they love and live with is a daily challenge.
A gentleman had been a successful businessman back home, but when civil war broke out and his business was bombed, there was nothing left to pass on to the next generation. The entire family experienced forced migration; they came to Edmonton with the arduous task of beginning again. Grandchildren worked at integrating into the school system. Children worked to learn English and find work to support the family. But he had no specific integration task. The Canadian workforce was not receptive to his age, skills, and language abilities. He was instantly transformed into someone who felt he was dependent on others, with no skills to offer, and no role to play.
Each of these scenarios helps us understand the complexity of isolation within immigrant communities. They should also alert us to the need for equally robust forms of engagement within these communities.
Written by Linda Guenther, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers