Canada possesses a significant population of immigrants from a diversity of countries and regions. In 2011, approximately 22% of the Canadian population was born outside of Canada, including 4.5 million seniors.Footnote 20 Generally, immigrant seniors in Canada have been here for a long time since people tend to migrate when they are relatively young. Indeed, seniors aged 65 and older represented a relatively smaller proportion of new arrivals between 2006 and 2011 (only 3.3%). According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (2012), the more recent the period of immigration, the lower the probability that a senior immigrant lives alone. This finding may be partly explained by the fact that many recent immigrant seniors live with members of their family who sponsored them when they came to Canada. Furthermore, among certain immigrant groups, it is traditional for elderly people to live with their children or other relatives.
De Jong Gierveld et al.’s (2015b) study found that, on average, older immigrants are significantly lonelier than older adults who are Canadian-born. Among the immigrant population of seniors, however, there is considerable diversity. Those who originate from countries with different languages and cultures than Canada are significantly lonelier than their Canadian-born counterparts while those who share English or French as a first language are not.Footnote 21 Interventions targeting the senior immigrant population must therefore take into account language and ethnicity.
This finding is reinforced by the experience of frontline workers. Among older socially-isolated immigrants in Vancouver, for instance, program administrators of the SUCCESS Seniors Quality of Life Outreach Project identified lack of proficiency in English as a major risk factor. Consequently, the program organizes activities and events in the languages of its clientele (primarily Cantonese and Mandarin) (Li, 2010).
Other factors were also shown to be significant in de Jong Gierveld et al. (2015a), particularly sense of belonging to the local community and frequency of social contacts (though not frequency of contact with relatives). Perhaps surprisingly, loneliness was also significantly associated with having a network of people who speak one’s native language. The authors speculate that this could be because such networks reinforce a feeling of cultural loss, or may be too small (and insular) to help the person connect to a broader network of people across a broader geographic space. In France, immigrant seniors seem to be at greater risk of experiencing several difficulties, including poverty and isolation (Alisaid-Guérain, 2015).
As a segment of the immigrant population, qualitative research undertaken by Vatz Laaroussi (2013) on older refugee women in Montreal suggests that migrational trajectories may have an impact on the experience of social isolation. Vatz Laaroussi found that first-generation exiles who came to Quebec in the 1960s and 70s with higher levels of education and autonomy were unlikely to experience isolation compared to women who migrated from refugee camps in the 1980s and 90s who tended to be more culturally distant from their children and grandchildren.
Some immigrant senior groups may also possess traits that provide a measure of protection against social isolation. Ng and Northcott (2015) found that familial living arrangements of South Asian immigrants, who typically live in extended families, were an important factor protecting against isolation in Edmonton. What mattered most, however, was not the living arrangement per se, but the amount of waking time spent alone at home and the quality of family relationships.
Limited research has also been undertaken on factors related to successful aging among immigrant groups with implications for the issue of social isolation. Noubicier and Charpentier (2013), for instance, studied the perceptions of senior immigrant women from Sub-Saharan Africa in Montreal towards aging, and found that social engagement, intergenerational relationships, financial autonomy, and faith were all key elements of successful aging.
In some cases, identifying seniors from immigrant groups who experience social isolation may be challenging. As part of its Age Friendly Initiative, the City of Nanaimo (British Columbia) sought to identify and remove barriers to social isolation for seniors in the community (North Sky Consulting Group Ltd, 2013). While only a small number of socially-isolated senior immigrants were identified, the authors speculate that referral agencies and others may have been hesitant to identify isolated immigrant seniors out of the fear that this could somehow jeopardize their immigration status.
Other factors may also interact with social isolation among senior immigrant groups. In the broader social isolation literature, for instance, there is a convincing body of knowledge suggesting that younger immigrant women are at high risk of social isolation. From the limited published work, however, gender differences among immigrant seniors could not be identified as a compounding factor.Footnote 26 Little is also known about the comparative prevalence of isolation among specific groups of immigrant seniors. Although more research is required on immigrant seniors and social isolation, it is clear that strategies to address this issue should consider culture, language, and the broader familial environment.
Immigrant Senior Caregiver Ecosystem Map
Toronto ENRICHES produced an ecosystem map documenting immigrant senior caregivers’ assets, needs, risks and barriers in their community, which could provide a template for others.