Loneliness and Isolation in Older Immigrant

Immigrants face great upheaval and life challenges by coming to a new country. Sadly, many of them must confront others — loneliness and isolation— as they grow old.

There is increasing evidence that loneliness and social isolation damage seniors’ quality of life. That and the growing number of people over 65 (expected to rise from 5 million people in 2011 to 10.4 million by 2036), combined with the increasing number of older immigrants arriving or aging in Canada, suggest a considerable problem on the horizon. Immigrant seniors have been called the most powerless and forgotten segment of the ethnic population.

Researchers at Sheridan College’s Centre for Elder Research are collaborating with ethno-specific and mainstream agencies to look at loneliness in older immigrant on a grant from the Community and College Social Innovation Fund of the Social Services and Humanities Research Council. The goal is to develop tools for identifying lonely older immigrants and to find ways to increase supports for them.

“You can be lonely even if you’re living with other people,” said Patricia Spadafora, director of the Elder Research centre. She is project director on the grant, which has four community partners.

Spadafora was making the point that loneliness and isolation are not the same thing, though they often co-exist. In addition to problems many older adults face that can contribute to loneliness and isolation — such as lack of transportation, small pensions or poor health — older immigrants may be further cut off by not speaking English very well, or at all.

Cultural expectations lead many older immigrants to live with their children, perhaps expected to provide daycare. Then, when the children go off to school, the grandparents are alone. In other cases, parents who had expected to live with their sons or daughters find themselves without the family support they always counted on.

There are efforts to help immigrant seniors. Sheridan’s partners on the project (Community Development Halton, Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre, India Rainbow Community Services of Peel and the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care) all have services for older immigrants.

The project is starting with eight Sheridan students developing a database of services and strategies for reaching older immigrants in the regions of Halton and Peel, where the research is focused. “You can’t propose solutions until you know what’s being done,” Spadafora said. “We don’t want to duplicate efforts.”

After that, older adults will be interviewed, to learn more about their needs and interests and to help them make social connections and access services. The interviews will focus on people from China, South Asia, the Philippines and Poland — the choices based on significant populations in Halton and Peel.

When the data are gathered and analyzed, the researchers and partners will create culturally competent program models and resources, including technological options that will let staff in agencies access resources to help them serve clients better.

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