Social isolation and loneliness are problems many seniors face. Immigrant and refugee seniors are no exception. Social isolation refers to a low quantity and quality of contact with others, while loneliness is the subjective feeling of being disconnected from others. These conditions contribute to increased depression and social anxiety, as well as the risk of coronary heart disease, dementia and mortality.
Every year, thousands of people leave their country to start a new life in Canada, whether for social, economic, and humanitarian reasons, or to be closer to family members. Many of them are seniors. A recent study by Statistics Canada revealed that: •Among men, European and non-European immigrants were more likely to experience loneliness than the Canadian-born population. • Among women, the probability of experiencing loneliness was higher among European immigrants than among Canadian-born women. • For both men and women, immigrants who arrived as adults (18 to 44 years old) and long-term immigrants (20 years or more in Canada since immigration) had a higher risk of loneliness than the population born in Canada. • People who had multiple chronic conditions (which is very common among seniors) or people who face barriers to social participation were more likely to feel alone.
These seniors are therefore at greater risk of suffering from social isolation and loneliness, because they face unique challenges: linguistic differences, cultural barriers, racism and discrimination, limited social networks, and obstacles to social participation. They are more likely to live in poverty, have poorer health and have difficulty accessing resources.
What research tells us
An evidence synthesis of 17 studies examined social isolation and loneliness among Canadian immigrants and refugees aged 55 to 93. Few studies exist on this topic and the majority of them were conducted in Ontario, in large cities, with elderly Chinese, South Asian, Iranian, German, Afro-Caribbean, former Yugoslav and Spanish immigrants and refugees. Five themes emerged in this synthesis:
1) A feeling of loss. Loss of autonomy, loss of social networks, death of a life partner, loss of linguistic and cultural references… Seniors can have difficulty fully integrating to the Canadian culture and society. Differences in traditions, customs and values can lead to a feeling of loss of identity. The inability to communicate effectively in the country’s official languages can lead to feelings of isolation, and learning a new language in old age can be a difficult and frustrating task.
2) Living conditions. In general, older people who feel appreciated and cared for by their family experience less loneliness than those who live alone. However, some studies show that living with your adult children can increase social isolation by reducing the possibilities for interaction with others.
3) Dependency. Adapting to a new culture and settling in a new country is difficult for seniors. Seniors who were independent in their country of origin may find themselves dependent on their family in Canada to communicate, participate in community life, participate in physical and social activities, or get around. Financial dependence and the impression of being a burden on the family also increase the risk of mistreatment and abuse according to certain studies.
4) Challenges and obstacles. One study showed that social isolation and loneliness were commonly linked to a lack of knowledge about available resources and how to access them (including access to medical care), language and cultural barriers, and “harm of the country” (the discomfort felt by certain people, or their descendants, having left their country of origin).
Family caregivers of immigrant and refugee seniors also experience isolation and loneliness, as they often have limited financial means, insufficient knowledge of available supports and services, inadequate home care hours and difficult access to health care due, among other things, to linguistic and cultural barriers.
5) Family conflicts. The sources of potential conflict are numerous: intergenerational tensions, different norms and expectations, disregard and loss of family values, economic challenges, unmet traditional obligations, changes in traditional roles of men and women, abuse, neglect and violence and feelings of being a burden. Such family conflicts can contribute to the isolation and loneliness of seniors.
Support the social engagement of seniors
Several initiatives can support the social engagement of immigrant and refugee seniors (as well as their caregivers):
• Language courses (French and/or English) and integration activities
• Varied and inclusive physical, artistic and cultural activities (choir, collective cooking, knitting, etc.)
• Religious events (masses, meetings at church)
• Intergenerational programs
• Support for natural caregivers and home help
• Adapted transportation services.
Dr. Francois-Pierre Gauvin for McMaster University Optimal Aging.