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Social Science General

Diversity and Aging Among Immigrant Seniors in Canada

Changing Faces and Greying Temples

edited by Douglas Durst & Michael MacLean

Brush Education
Initial publish date
Jan 2010
General, Aging, Adulthood & Aging
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    Publish Date
    Jan 2010
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Historically, Canada has been a nation of immigrants, with 16-20% of its citizens being foreign born. Most immigrant research addresses the issues of integration and adjustment of young and adult immigrants, with little work on aging. There are numerous books on immigrants and books on aging, but there are few that have considered the topics of both diversity and aging. Diversity and Aging among Immigrant Seniors in Canada breaks from that tradition and offers an eclectic collection of original research from among Canada's leading researchers on aging and immigrants. Some researchers refer to this emerging field as Ethno-gerontology.

There are two interesting groups of immigrant seniors: those who entered Canada at over 65 years of age, and those who aged in Canada. Most Canadians are surprised to learn that the senior population of seniors has a higher percentage of immigrants (19.6%) than the general population (13.7%). As Canadians age, the country's composition of immigrant seniors has also changed from mainly European to greater cultural and ethnic diversity from Africa and Asia. This cultural and ethnic diversity has social/health/economic policy implications and impacts on programs and services delivered to seniors.

Diversity and Aging among Immigrant Seniors in Canada is divided into two main sections. In Part 1, the chapters explore general and universal issues such as national trends and demographics, theoretical orientations, issues of culture and legal dimensions, poverty and income, and end-of-life care. In Part 2, the chapters examine issues pertaining to specific ethnic groups. For example, there are chapters on the social well-being of Chinese immigrants, determinants of mental health for Iranian seniors, family dynamics for aging Haitian elders, and emerging issues for Punjabi families.

Diversity and Aging among Immigrant Seniors in Canada offers both breadth and depth to the topic of aging among immigrants, and is a must read for social work and health care professionals, students in health and social services, policy and program planners and families of aging immigrants. It is written in a language that crosses disciplines, shedding professional jargon, making it an informative and engaging read for professionals, researchers, and the general public.

About the authors

Douglas Durst, PhD, is a professor of social work at the University of Regina. For over 10 years, he has served on the Canadian Council on Multicultural Health and has published widely on social work practice with diverse communities.

Douglas Durst's profile page

Michael MacLean, PhD, is Professor Emeritus, Social Work, at the University of Regina.

Michael MacLean's profile page

Excerpt: Diversity and Aging Among Immigrant Seniors in Canada: Changing Faces and Greying Temples (edited by Douglas Durst & Michael MacLean)


When considering immigrants, many people assume that immigrants are “young” but senior immigrants are not new in Canada. Throughout the history of Canada, our foreign-born members have aged in Canada and made important and significant contributions to our country. It is surprising to many people to learn that the prairie provinces of western Canada have the highest percentages of foreign born seniors; they emigrated from Europe many decades ago. However, in recent years, the faces of our senior population have been changing. With changes in source countries, our senior population is beginning to reflect the diversity in demographics of the nation as a whole. With increasing ethnic diversity among our aging population come some new challenges and opportunities. Some of these seniors immigrated as adults and aged in Canada and others aged in their homelands prior to family unification. All of them bring diversity and contribute in all aspects of Canadian society whether it is social, economic, political or spiritual. Little attention has been given to this demographic, social change. We know so little about them and the challenges they face. This edited volume attempts to address this lack in knowledge and makes an important contribution for policy and program planning. Readers in social policy, social gerontology, social work, public health/administration and community development will be informed and challenged by the discussions proposed by scholars from across Canada. Many of the chapters provide specific and concrete recommendations for practitioners and policy planners. Some of the contributors come from a social gerontological background with an emphasis on aging while others have a research background on immigration or ethnicity. It is exciting to see these two important backgrounds come together and teach us what they know. There are numerous chapters addressing gender concerns from a feminist perspective and structural issues with a critical analysis. The book is interdisciplinary with contributions from economics, nursing, medicine, sociology, social work and psychology. Its diversity across theoretical perspectives and disciplines is its strength.

The book is divided into major sections. The first section is meant to have chapters that are broader in focus to include issues pertaining to most immigrant seniors. It is offers a foundation and a context for the topic of aging and immigration. In the second section, the chapters are more focused on various ethnic groups but with important implications for the broader population. The book concludes with a chapter by the editors that attempts to link the major themes and leads the reader into future topics of discussion and research.

The volume will be of interest to a matrix of readers. First, there are those who are primarily interested in immigrants, cultural diversity or ethnicity and, second, those interested in the field of gerontology, aging and seniors. These two themes can then be intersected with three readerships: service providers who practice or deliver programs and services in either communities (seniors or immigrants); social and health policy developers in either themes (seniors or immigrants) and; academics and researchers who research and teach in either theme (seniors or immigrants). The volume is a useful resource for practitioners, policy researchers, academics and students.

The introductory chapter gives an overview of the topic and includes a brief history of immigration, classes of immigration and refugees, and current demographics of immigrant seniors. It also introduces concepts of aging and a summary of current issues.

Herbert C. Northcott and Jennifer L. Northcott provide a review of recent literature examining the integration of immigrant seniors in Canada. This chapter examines various issues relating to the economic, health, social, linguistic and cultural integration of immigrant seniors in Canada. Key priorities regarding the integration needs of immigrant seniors are identified and recommendations made.

Lynn McDonald argues that an enduring complaint about research on aging is its atheoretical nature, so it comes as no surprise that theorizing ethnicity and aging is minimal. Most theory is still caught at the intersection of gerontological theories and general theories of ethnicity. Specifically, in multicultural countries like Canada, most of the focus has been on inequality by examining the additive disadvantage of being old and belonging to an ethnic group. In this chapter, the author reviews assimilation and modernization theories through to age stratification and ethnic stratification and the construction ethnicity. She concludes with an examination of the life course as a cultural construct that may have promise for theorizing about ethnicity.

Sharon Koehn, Charmaine Spencer and Eunju Hwang outline the legal, social, and health implications of the immigration laws and policies related to sponsorship of elderly relatives under the Family Class immigration category. Examples are drawn from original case studies of the South Asian and Chinese immigrant populations in British Columbia.

Referring to both the literature and their own research among immigrant older people and their families, Jean-Pierre Lavoie, Nancy Guberman, and Shari Brotman explore cultural versus structural debates regarding differences in care patterns among immigrant and non-immigrant families, including the role of methodology in the maintenance of confusion about the respective role of cultural/structural factors. They review the dangers of overemphasizing the role of culture in intervention with immigrant seniors.

Hugh Grant and James Townsend present the economic issues facing immigrant seniors. They tell the reader that elderly immigrants are more likely to live with economic families that are earning less than the LICO; the differences are more pronounced for men (12.5% for immigrants versus 8.0% for native born) than for women (20.1% for immigrants versus 17.6% for native born). These figures mask a number of worrying patterns; immigrants that arrived after the age of 30 or came from developing countries have much higher poverty rates than the native born. Regardless of immigrant status, individuals living alone experience rates of poverty exceeding 30%.

The purpose of the chapter by Atsuko Matsuoka, Antionette Clarke and Darlene Murphy is to present an alternative intervention for addressing elder abuse and neglect of minority older women at risk. The alternative intervention presented here is based on restorative justice mediation and strengths-based critical social work. The authors apply the intervention model to two minority populations: Japanese and Caribbean seniors.

Recent research in end-of-life care shows there has been considerable work in this area in the past few years but that very little of this research considers end-of-life issues for immigrant seniors. Michael MacLean, Nuelle Novik, Kavita Ram and Allison Schmidt explore this limited research on immigrant seniors and use qualitative data from interviews with immigrant seniors to document some of the issues faced by these seniors and their families at this stage of life.

The face of residential care has been changing and issues confronting long term care facilities and personal care homes are explored by Douglas Durst. This chapter introduces the concepts of continuing care and types of long-term care facilities in Canada. Since there are a lot of myths and fears about long-term care, this chapter provides readers who are new to the field a foundation from which to understand the issues facing ethnic minority seniors and their families.

Edward Makwarimba, Miriam Stewart, Zhi Jones, and Knox Makumbe, Edward Shizha and Denise Spitzer present the investigated perceptions of support resources, and perspectives on support programs preferred by immigrant seniors from four different ethnic groups (i.e., former Yugoslavians, Spanish-speaking Latino, Chinese (Mandarin-speaking), and English-speaking Afro-Caribbean. They offer insights on how services and policies can be adapted and improved.

Social capital is an emerging concept in social policy and research arenas. According to Daniel Lai and Shirley Chau, no research has specifically examined the role of social capital on the health of elderly Chinese immigrants. Based on their findings from a multi-site study of a random sample of aging Chinese adults in Canada, their chapter examines the effect of social capital on health and well being of 1,537 elderly Chinese immigrants. The findings are useful in informing policy makers and health service providers the directions for enhancing health of elderly immigrants.

Elder abuse is a major problem with profound effects on the quality of life of older persons. In Canada, demographic shifts and the increased need for care provision make this issue particularly salient. Christine. A. Walsh and Shelina Hassanali discuss elder abuse of Chinese immigrant elders, exploring those cultural variables which make this experience similar to and different from elders of other ethnic backgrounds.

The experiences of the African immigrant are quite unique and editor, Douglas Durst, and Godknows Kumassah present the history of the immigration of Africans to Canada. They present research on immigrants and refugees, and the conceptual/theoretical perspective of the image of Africans in North America is examined with references to aging and seniors.

Siavash Jafari, Richard Mathias and Souzan Baharlou’s ethnographic observations and qualitative study of elderly Iranian-Canadians reveal several cultural and religious factors as the barriers to successful acculturation and mental well-being. Poor integration in the main stream culture, improper communication, lack of English language skills, and strong cultural ties were among the main barriers to access to and use of mental health services.

Cheuk Fan Ng and Herbert C. Northcott examine the integration and adaptation of 161 elderly South Asian immigrants 60 or more years of age surveyed in Edmonton, Alberta in 2003. Comparisons are made between older immigrants who came to Canada recently and those who came less recently, and between females and males. This study focuses on three sets of factors relevant to immigrant integration: social and cultural factors, family and interpersonal relationships, and living arrangements.

Carlos Teixeira’s interesting case study explores issues related to neighborhood change in Toronto’s “Little Portugal.” The author indicates that gentrification, steadily rising property taxes, and increasing housing maintenance costs are all major concerns that are forcing some Portuguese seniors to sell their properties.

In Louise Racine’s chapter, the everyday struggle to reconcile paid work with caring activities of middle-aged Haitian Canadian women caregivers is described. More specifically, the extent to which women caregivers are torn between Haitian cultural traditions and the need to adapt to the Canadian market economy are examined. Second, the influence of immigration in redefining family dynamics of Haitian Canadian families is examined. Third, a detailed description of the lived experiences of two aged men caregivers is presented to illustrate the social and economic impact of caring among older immigrants.

Nuelle Novik’s study draws upon three generations of elderly Ukrainian immigrant women to explore the factors impacting their lives. This qualitative study involved 20 women from 7 distinct families in Saskatchewan. The women told her that quality of life is all about relationships: marital, family and community.

Ann H. Kim considers the structural and cultural implications of various housing arrangements for Korean immigrant older adults. Using census data and interviews, she examines issues of access to housing, barriers to institutionalized housing, and the degree to which cultural prescriptions regarding family responsibilities to house aging parents have shifted for the Korean community.

Ben Kuo applies a bidirectional model of acculturation to examine the demographic, psychosocial, and health predictors of Canadian Acculturation and Chinese Identification, respectively, in a sample of 213 elderly Chinese Canadian immigrants. Interestingly, he finds that the identification to either Chinese or Canadian orientations is not related and the two identifications are primarily independent of each other.

Gurnam Sanghera provides a personal and reflective discussion on the perspectives of elderly Punjabi in Canada. He provides some interesting background to their cultural perspectives on growing old and living in their new land. His chapter nicely summarizes the humanity and companssion called for in many of the previous chapters.

In the final chapter, editors Douglas Durst and Michael MacLean attempt to weave the discussion and link the various themes into concluding comments. They identify critical issues and offers some suggestions for further research and debate.

The volume uses Canada Census data so a number of definitions should be explained. When the term “foreign-born population” is used, it includes permanent residents and citizens who were born outside of Canada and excludes persons born outside Canada who are Canadian citizens by birth. The term “visible minorities” is defined by the federal Employment Equity Act as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in color.” The Act specifies the following groups as visible minorities: Chinese, South Asians (eg., Indian, Pakistani), Blacks, Arabs, West Asians (eg. Iranian, Afghan), Filipinos, Southeast Asians (eg., Vietnamese, Cambodian), Latin Americans, Japanese, Koreans and other visible minority groups, such as Pacific Islanders.

The editors have avoided the term “race” to describe differences between groups, populations and cultures because it has no bearing physically. Biologically, it does not exist and its frequent use perpetuates this myth that there are significant physiological differences between groups. However, it does have social and political contexts and we prefer “racialization” to describe the often false assumptions, beliefs and attitudes towards people who appear differently. Some of our contributors have used the word “race” and when the word “race” appears in this volume, it is in a social and “racialized” context.

The astute reader will find mistakes in this text. There will be missed editorial corrections, poor choice of words and weak sentence structure. The mistakes are ours and we seek the reader’s patience and indulgence.

We hope that this text adds and builds our body of knowledge and understandings of these special people. It is only the beginning and not the last word. The readers’ feedback and comments are always welcomed.