Immigrating: Growing Old Gracefully in Canada

By Gilda Spitz

Gilda Spitz has written software manuals for the past 15 years. As an award-winning technical writer and president of her own company, G.S. Consulting, she provides a variety of writing, editing, and indexing services. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit www.gsconsulting.ca.

"In youth we run into difficulties. In old age difficulties run into us," said the opera singer, Beverly Sills.

Unfortunately, this is true for all of us as we get older. But it may be particularly true for seniors who have come to Canada from another land. They struggle with a new language, a new culture, and a new climate, perhaps even more so than their more adaptable children and grandchildren, while also dealing with health challenges as they get older. But our seniors are fortunate that Canada offers many services that can help seniors cope with these concerns.

Special Concerns for Seniors

Newcomers of all ages need some time to get used to life in a new country. They have the usual challenges of finding housing, education, and employment, while often struggling to learn a new language.

But in some ways, it's even more difficult for seniors. If they were sponsored by their adult children, they didn't need to prove that they speak English or have a higher education or special profession. While sponsorship made it easier for the senior to enter Canada, it also makes it harder to get used to life here.

The biggest barrier for most seniors is communication. Seniors often have very little opportunity to learn English, because they spend most of their time at home with their children and grandchildren, speaking the language of their homeland. By contrast, their children and grandchildren can learn English all day at school and at work. Sevgul Topkara, Settlement Counsellor at Woodgreen Community Services, says, "The language barrier is the number one problem because it makes seniors too dependent on their children." For example, when dealing with medical problems, many seniors must take a child or grandchild with them to translate.

Another common problem for seniors is isolation. Their adult children are often generous in providing them with food and shelter in their homes. But they don't always think of providing pocket money for public transportation, small purchases, or even a cup of coffee at the local donut shop. This sense of isolation can lead to depression in lonely seniors.

Community Centres and Agencies

Community services can be very helpful for seniors who are newcomers to Canada. Some services are designed for immigrants of all ages, while others cater specifically to seniors. These seniors' services deal with the communication issue because they usually host English classes and discussion groups. And they fight isolation and depression with a wide variety of social programs that are both informative and fun. Almost all of these services are provided either free of charge or at very low cost. For example, Parkdale Golden Age Foundation, in the High Park area of Toronto, provides a wide variety of services and activities for seniors over the age of 50. Seniors can enjoy meals, activities such as cards and Tai Chi, and outings to popular destinations such as Buffalo. Melinda Cudanin, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator, finds that immigrant seniors often appreciate dealing with staff members who share their ethnic background and language. To contact Parkdale, phone 416-536-6077, or go to www.pgaf.ca/.

The Neighbourhood Link/Senior Link in East Toronto serves a mixed community of immigrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, and many other lands. They host an "eat-and-meet" lunch program where seniors can participate in lectures, outings, and attend films. They also provide a "Conversation Circle" at which seniors are encouraged to discuss topics of interest, helping them to keep their minds sharp and improve their English at the same time. Kaneez Fatima, Newcomer Outreach Assistant at Neighbourhood Link/Senior Link, says they "honour all cultures and special holidays." For more information, phone 416-698-1332 or go to www.senior-link.com/

Woodgreen Community Services, in the Danforth and Pape area, serves many clients from China. They provide many services funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, including classes on English, and on health and wellness. For more information, call 416-462-3110, or go to www.woodgreen.org/immigrants/index.html.

Seniors all over the Greater Toronto Area can take advantage of the settlement and seniors' services offered by COSTI Immigrant Services, where staff members speak over 60 languages. COSTI's Seniors' Services effectively engage and involve seniors through supportive counselling, recreational, educational, and cultural activities. Services include: educational workshops related to aging such as health and safety; English conversation circles; recreational activities; cultural outings and field trips; arts and crafts; and documentation of government pension forms and other government communications. These programs, says Pina Marino, Coordinator at COSTI's Elderly Persons' Centre (EPC), "make them feel useful and alive." Especially because of the isolation experienced by seniors due to transportation difficulties, "it's important for seniors to socialize with other people, because it gives them empowerment in their lives. They have so much to give," says Marino. For more information about COSTI, call 416-658-1600, or go to www.costi.org.

But community centres can help only if the seniors are aware of the existence of the centre, and if they have the opportunity to attend. According to Cudanin, the biggest problem is that many families don't know how many helpful services are out there, just waiting for their seniors. "Awareness of what's available is a major problem," she says. "We have accomplished so much, but we could do more."

Help in the Home

As a senior grows older, he or she may need a little help in the home. Through the Ontario government, you may qualify for helpful services. For example:

  • Health workers can visit your home to describe what services are available for your particular needs, and even provide some supplies and equipment, such as handy items to make bathrooms more safe.
  • Personal care workers can help with bathing, dressing, and meals.
  • Homemaking services can also help with meals, shopping, and some cleaning.
  • Community support services can deliver pre-packaged meals, often known as Meals on Wheels, and help with many other day-to-day tasks.

For more information, contact the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres (CCAC) at www.oaccac.on.ca/.

Special Housing for Seniors

Although it's a very difficult fact to face, sometimes a senior has health problems that require more care than their family can provide at home. The family must, in this case, ensure that their loved one receives the medical care that he or she deserves, by choosing a residential home.

Depending on the level of medical care required, along with financial factors, you have several options.

  • If the senior needs just a little help to live independently, you can choose supportive housing accommodations. For many of these homes, you can receive subsidies from the Ontario government, based on income.
  • Also for the senior who needs a relatively low level of help, you can choose to rent an apartment in a retirement home. The family pays for both the rent and care in this type of home.
  • For the senior who needs nursing care 24 hours a day, you can choose a long-term care facility, commonly known as a nursing home or a home for the aged. These homes are supervised by the Ontario government. The family pays for the housing, and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care pays for the nursing.

For more information on these types of residential care homes, see www.health.gov.on.ca/english/public/program/ltc/3_overview.html.

Special Housing for Various Communities

You may find that your loved one prefers to live in a retirement or nursing home that caters to your particular community. Such homes may provide staff who speak your language, and who provide entertainment and religious celebrations familiar to your culture.

For example:

  • Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care (Chinese community)
  • Villa Columbo and Casa Verde (Italian community)
  • Ukrainian Canadian Care Centre
  • Apotex Centre, Jewish Home for the Aged, also known as Baycrest Home for the Aged

Even those homes that don't officially serve a particular ethnic group often adapt their activities to the needs of their residents. For example, Valleyview Residence in North York is owned and run by the Seventh Day Adventists but, because a large majority of their residents are Jewish, they host many Jewish activities and celebrations.

To find a home that caters to your religion or language, or to apply for residence at housing for seniors with special needs contact CCAC at www.oaccac.on.ca.

Caring for Seniors Back Home

Many newcomers to Canada have elderly parents still in their homeland. While it may be comforting for their adult children in Canada to know that the senior is comfortable with his or her surroundings and culture, it is also a major concern.

Many families try to sponsor their senior parents, so that they may join them in Canada. For many seniors, this approach is ideal, because they want to live near their children and grandchildren. But for others, they just can't get used to the culture and climate of Canada.

Adult children in Canada often worry about how to deal with medical emergencies for their parents in their homeland. They also worry about living arrangements, where parents may be living in homes that require regular maintenance and emergency repairs. The only course of action for children in Canada is to establish a network of friends and neighbours back home who can help the senior, and to visit as often as possible.

In short.

We can't turn back the clocks for our beloved seniors, and we can't always avoid the difficulties that, as Beverley Sills says, "run into us."

But, by being aware of all the services that are available here in Canada, we can do our best to help the beloved elder members of our families live happy and productive lives in their "golden years."

- CNM