Reprinted from the "Immigrants and Refugees" issue of Visions Journal, 2010, 6 (3), p. 4
About one in four British Columbians is from a visible minority and most immigrated to Canada in the last 15 years. So I’m really delighted that Visions is covering the important and relevant topic of immigrants and refugees. But the only way to cover it well is to take off slices. And so with this issue we look at older adults, that is, seniors from ethnocultural minorities. Several issues in the future, we’ll look at another slice in this rich and complex area.
It was difficult getting stories for this issue. Mental health programs or projects for older adult immigrants or refugees are few or non-existent. Because of language, culture, stigma and trust barriers, getting first-person accounts from immigrant seniors themselves was also a real challenge. It became easy to see how seniors, and visible minority seniors especially, can become invisible to the broader public and to the mental health system. Young people are getting more and more attention in mental health and addictions. I fear the other end of the age spectrum has the short straw.
My family and I are immigrants. My grandmother joined us much later from India. She was widowed, alone and vulnerable over there. My mother struggled for a long time to get permission to bring her to Canada. My granny wasn’t allowed to access most government programs for ten years. Although she was surrounded by family, she was very isolated from others her own age. She couldn’t drive and had panic attacks whenever she left the house. She practiced a religion that isn’t well known here, so she worshipped alone. She developed dementia after a small stroke, and then depression. She still mourned the loss of my grandfather, the loss of her country and her youth. We did what we could for her mental health problems, but she lost all lust for life. And the toll on our family, especially my mother, was enormous.
One of the things that strikes me the most about this topic is the issue of power. Immigrant seniors, like my granny, can easily feel disempowered: lack of income, loneliness, language barriers, culture shock, struggles with immigration policies, fewer rights of citizenship, conflicts with family and caregivers, health problems. We shouldn’t underestimate the journey—either the challenges, or the courage, wisdom and drive that help many immigrant seniors thrive in the face of these odds.
About the authorSarah is Visions Editor and Director of Public Education and Communications at the Canadian Mental Health Association's BC Division. She also has personal experience with mental illness.