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Aging Across Cultures: Dialogue Tables

Written by Pamella Ottem
Photography by Elizabeth Azeroual

Many thanks to BC Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, for funding this focused review of services, concerns and challenges faced by organizations providing help to multicultural seniors in the Lower Mainland. The following groups were represented:

A.S.K. Friendly Society, BC Community Resources Network, Kitsilano Neighbourhood House: United Way-Better At Home Coordinator, Collingwood Neighbourhood House, COSCO, 411 Seniors Centre Society, Gordon Neighbourhood House, Jewish Family Services, Kehila Society, Marpole Neighbourhood House, Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre, Vancouver Seniors Advocate, Seniors Brigade Society of BC, Seniors First B.C., South Granville Seniors Centre, Tonari Gumi, Vancouver Native Health Society, and West End Seniors Network.

Gyda Chud, Co-President of JSA welcomed the participants, emphasizing her message of advocacy, reflection and rejuvenation as illustrated in the new JSA video outlining their community services. Grace Hann and Charles Leibovitch, from JSA’s Peer Support Services were the facilitators for the multicultural dialogue tables. Liz Azeroual of JSA documented on flip charts the ideas and concepts put forth by the engaged and enthusiastic participants.

Aging Trends and Challenges

What is obvious is that whatever the needs of seniors in general, it is many times worse for both immigrants and for women. Many must choose between either eating or taking their medications. Immigrant women are less likely to be accepted for financial aid. Literacy is an issue, especially when application for help is online. Immigrants find navigating the system especially difficult, when English is not their first language. Without family advocacy many seniors are left to fend for themselves. They need places to meet other seniors who have similar language, customs, and experiences (e.g. familiar foods, access to religion, etc.) Even in care facilities many immigrant seniors are forced to eat English/Canadian foods. Immigrant seniors, especially women, need advocates to get their needs met. Community-based organizations working with seniors often are not well funded, so help is minimal. The medical system is not structured to treat the multiple problems of seniors.

Loneliness and Isolation: The Tightening Circle

Family groupings are now much smaller, and young families do not live in the same area as the grandparents. Some seniors are abandoned by their families, or by the death of friends and colleagues. There is a lack of appropriate social groups, transportation and financial support in order to address these issues. Health care issues, for example, untreated depression, fractures limiting mobility and degenerating hearing and sight increase isolation. LGBTQ may not be recognized in the elderly. There is a need for better communication concerning these groups and their problems.

Caregiver Challenges and Concerns: Housing and Reduction in Care

The trends for poor seniors is to move into single room facilities if they are available, or to become homeless—some living in cars or couch surfing. Poor seniors cannot afford the higher rents.



Paid caregiver turnover and deteriorating quality of care facilities has led families to take their loved ones home to continue care. They do not have access to financial support. When caregivers become burned out, the system breaks down. Navigating the system for care is a huge challenge for caregivers, for example, palliative care has to be referred to by a physician. There is no longer an assumed reality that families, especially the women, will care for the elderly.

Employment, Leisure and Volunteerism

The challenges of population movement and growth, and changes in industry are without planning for the changing needs of the senior population. Immigrants who are professionals, have difficulties meeting different standards, especially the non-English speakers. Language training is necessary and difficult. Families need paid work in stable jobs, where possible so do seniors. Volunteers are hard to recruit and retain, even though it is meaningful work and can lead to other jobs. Not only do immigrants need to learn the language but, as so much is done online, they need to learn the technology and corporate culture. Culture is not taught. In many areas discrimination is an issue faced by new Canadians. As immigrant populations age in Canada they need to plan for retirement which is becoming costlier as the population ages and services become more expensive.

Recommendations for Change in Aging Trends

Immigrants need schooling in language, Canadian culture and technological skills in order to assimilate and prosper. Professionals should be trained in providing individual specific care with attention to age and culture. Various health care agencies need adequate funding to keep the elderly out of hospitals. Cultural care facilities, while not perfect, could still be encouraged to meet cultural needs for seniors especially reduction of isolation. The interactive links between the various levels of health and social services (clinics, hospitals and non-profit agencies) need to be strengthened in order to keep this population from “falling through the cracks.” Access to transportation is a big part of this.

Caregiver Challenges and Concerns

Caregivers should be considered for remuneration to care for seniors in their home. If this keeps seniors out of hospitals or care facilities, it is cost effective to pay family caregivers. Ethnic care facilities are recommended as a place where language, food and culture is familiar and a place where families of seniors can meet.

Senior Housing

This area of concern was given the highest priority. Needed are more single room affordable housing units, more cooperatives, more roommate pairing services and stricter legislation for affordable-housing vacancy rules. Also more access to CPP and OAS for immigrants and 55-65 year old seniors.

At the end of this productive and enlightening session, Gloria Gutman, from Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre, summed it up: Groups need to keep communicating at all levels to help resolve these major seniors’ issues.




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Aging Across Cultures: Dialogue Tables – Participating Organizations

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