Family: Speaking with Immigrant Seniors

Challenges faced by immigrant seniors range from lack of language skills to economic dependence on their children. Little attention has been paid to immigrant seniors, especially when it comes to conducting research interviews in their first languages.  

New research report

Between 2009 and 2011 a study, funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and spearheaded by Dr. Kenise Murphy Kilbride, Professor Emerita and Adjunct Professor at the Schools of Early Childhood Education and Graduate Studies at Ryerson University, researched recent immigrant seniors and their lived experiences.  The impetus behind this study came from the findings of focus groups held by CIC in 2006 with immigrants across Ontario. "Among seniors there was not a single person who would recommend to a friend to immigrate to Canada," says Dr. Kilbride. "That is why I said that we need to ask seniors themselves. I focused on older immigrants who have come only in the last 10 years because I wanted people with more current experiences."

The study included both recent immigrant seniors to Ontario and family members who had sponsored a senior. 10 community and settlement agencies were included for additional insights. Phase 1 of the study, in 2009-10, involved 20 focus groups with 128 immigrant women age 50 and over, and an additional 20 focus groups with 138 sponsoring family members. Phase 2, in 2010-11, used individual interviews with 72 senior immigrant men age 55 and over. Participants were recruited from the top 12 language groups of immigrants to Ontario in the last 10 years, and interviews were conducted in participants' first languages.

Similar concerns

The decision to separate participants into groups based on gender was made so seniors could be more forthcoming in their responses without cultural obligations regarding gender relationships.

The study found the men's and women's concerns were remarkably similar. They include:

  • sources of mental stress linked to their migration and settlement circumstances;
  • physical health;
  • yearning to learn English and obstacles faced in acquiring it;
  • challenges posed by a lack of income, and the dependence of many upon their children;
  • dissatisfaction with the sponsorship process and ensuing living accommodations;
  • knowledge of elder abuse, its causes and consequences;
  • desire for better and earlier information and support regarding settlement in Canada;
  • need for improved transportation suitable for seniors;
  • desire for integration into Canadian, and ethno-Canadian, communities;
  • struggle with the changed role of seniors in the new culture;
  • grandparenting and relationships with their grandchildren

There were also differences. "The women were clearly concerned about the men's mental health being increasingly poor because of their inability to be the men that they had been in their home countries," says Dr. Kilbride. "There they were paterfamilias, they supported the family, they had a professional identity of which they were proud. Here they became unemployed 'nothings.'"

The main concern expressed by men was the lack of employment opportunities. "Only one out of 72 men whom we interviewed did not intend to work," continues Dr. Kilbride. "71 men fully expected to carry on as respected managers, professionals or whatever they may have been in their home countries. For all of them this had not happened."

The findings show that expectations were fuelled by lack of appropriate information regarding their future lives in Canada prior to their arrival. Dr. Kilbride says that seniors' families and friends who had already immigrated painted a too rosy picture of life in Canada. However, seniors also stated that information from the government is not in their language, and does not address their needs as seniors.

Different interpretations

Sponsoring family members often had strikingly different interpretations of the challenges faced by the immigrant seniors. For instance, while senior immigrants in the study almost uniformly expressed the wish and need to learn English language, many of their family members stated that the seniors were not interested in acquiring English, and lacked the capacity to learn or retain a new language.

"The most surprising finding for me was that we really treat older immigrants as second class citizens," says Dr. Kilbride. "Unless your country has an agreement with Canada (Social Security Agreement that Canada currently has with 51 other countries ), you are not entitled to OAS (Old Age Security) until you have been here 10 years. Then there is the whole issue of dependency status. Seniors who are sponsored are considered dependents for 364 days a year for the first 10 years. On the 365th day, when their adult children go to pay income taxes, the government waves the magic wand and declares that they are not dependents, so the children cannot claim the cost incurred supporting their parents here."

Main conclusions

Based on the study results, the final reports recommended addressing seniors' financial independence and English language acquisition as priorities.

For learning English, participants recommended bilingual teacher aides and concentration on conversation skills, in senior-only language classes to help them feel comfortable. Participants also had recommendations for their employment needs, including the establishment of employment agencies specializing in older workers.

Dr. Kilbride notes that Canada is currently faced with an avalanche of baby boomer retirements. "They will have to be replaced largely by immigrants," she says. "So we can either write (recent immigrant seniors) off as a dependent class who are a drain rather than a contribution, or we can say thankfully we have this resource exactly at the time we need it."   

Full reports:

Igor Rosic is an internationally published freelance journalist and film writer. He has many years of work experience in the fields of adult education and ESL. Apart from film, his other research and writing interests lie in the fields of world migration, immigration/settlement and gerontology.