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South Asian seniors facing loneliness and alienation in a foreign land

Posted in Canada, Community, S. Asia

Published on July 08, 2015 with No Comments

Canada with a population of approximately thirty five million has at least five millionseniors. Seniors makeup the fastest growing age group according to Statistics Canada. In 2011, an estimated 5.0 million Canadians were 65 years of age or older, a number that is expected todouble in the next 25 years to reach 10.4 million. By 2051, about one in four Canadians isexpected to be 65 or over .Canada’s aging population would accelerate between 2010 and 2031, a period during which baby boomers would reach the age of 65 years. This group would represent between 23 % and 25% of the population by the year 2036 and between 24 % and 28% by 2061 compared to 14% in 2009.South Asians, being the largest visible minority group today ,surpassing even the Chinese, are poised to have proportionally higher number of seniors. Keeping this in mind the government, along with other social agencies, is trying to address this issue and the problems arising from an aging population.

South Asian seniors are a breed apart. They are more dependent on their children and face several barriers associated with first generation immigrants like language, racism, cultural and social differences. Many families like the idea of having their parents or in laws’ at home to be with their children and lets face it with no other help here who would not like mom’s cooking? It is not uncommon to see many of our South Asian seniors especially male, hanging out in malls and community centres. The female counterparts rarely hang out together in the malls and prefer to stay at home. The problem of aged parents being left alone at home while people work definitely exists. Concerned community activists try to voice their opinions on air on South Asian talk shows .Even ethnic news papers and television channels are abuzz with these social dilemmas. These avenues are also being used to vent out frustrations by people at the social agencies or NGOs, funded by the government, that help such seniors. Surely these problems exist for all seniors, but the South Asians and a few other groups, do not believe in leaving their parents in old age or retirement homes where most seniors live.

Compounding this problem is the language barrier that exists, making it impossible for our seniors to communicate or enjoy life like their mainstream counterparts. Children and/or grandchildren at home are glued to their shows and computers or are busy chatting on various social networks with their friends, leaving grandparents even more alienated. English too is commonly used by children to answer their grandparents even though they may understand their mother tongue. Missing their homeland and lamenting the erosion of social and cultural values these seniors also tune in to radio stations to voice their opinions. Responding to this topic several people draw attention to the positive aspects of living together or having their loved ones here. They claim these seniors bind the family together creating an atmosphere of tradition and culture, otherwise absent here. Children too learn the value of family when grandparents live under the same roof.

Taking offense at the topic several people admonish the host of the program claiming that problems and generation gaps exist everywhere then why make an example of our own community since we actually take care of our own! Fair enough, but statistics though limited point otherwise. Faced with neglect, alienation and sometimes even abuse the seniors try to hide from social workers and doctor the facts fearing reprisal for their children. We are a tight knit community. Sadly we are tight lipped too. Honor, family name and shame all play a role in extending and turning a blind eye to this problem.

In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka these seniors had their own homes, pensions and their independence. Here they depend on their children for rides to the mall or places of worship. The cold weather also makes it impossible for seniors to access public transit. Financially too they depend on their children if they do not receive any old age security or supplement. The senior housing also has a long waiting list making the shelters the only option for them in emergency situations.

Not everyone experiences the same cultural divide or alienation. Compromising and understanding parents/grandparents empathise with the stressful and challenging nature of raising children here. They try to adjust and help. Grandchildren too act as a balm in making the transition bearable. Areas like Peel, Markham and others in Toronto have come up with non profit charitable organisations which are non- political and non- religious, where seniors can meet and interact. The India Rainbow community Services of Peel and the Markham South Asian Seniors center, just to name a few, support positive aging. For a small fee they offer all day services that include health oriented seminars, English language classes, guided trips to the malls, job search workshops etc. This is a positive step in addressing the needs of seniors who, after raising their children in India or anyother place, feel helpless and lost in their golden years in a foreign land.

“Why call them here if you cannot take care of them?”Enquired someone over the air.”Perhaps your kids are older now and your parents have outlived their babysitting job?” Whatever the reason they are here now. Very often the whole family is overseas and no one is there to look after them in their own country .This problem, like many others facing the South Asian Diaspora, won’t just disappear. We have to address it by taking the bull by the horns, raising awareness and working with social agencies to find practical and viable solutions.


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