Submitted to the Thorold News by Kenny Gwena, Settlement Counsellor at the Welland Heritage Council & Multicultural Centre
“Karina” sits across the table listening intently as I rephrase my question. I hope she can be comfortable knowing I care, and trusting the notes from this interview will be used responsibly. I am asking if she has observed any challenges associated with being an immigrant over the age of 60, living in Niagara. Her answer is slow and measured as she does not want to give the wrong impression. She says that her experience has been good because people are nice. She also likes the changing seasons because where she is from weather remains the same throughout the year. As the conversation progresses, she becomes confident and begins to tell a story similar to what I have been hearing from other immigrant seniors.
The settlement and integration journey of an immigrant arriving to Niagara as a senior can be easy to overlook. When people look at seniors in general, it can be difficult to comprehend the amount of change and loss experienced due to emerging health conditions or isolation from former co-workers, family and friends, sometimes being left to do everything on their own. For immigrant seniors, the resulting feelings of loss and fear can be magnified.
There is a degree of comfort lost when one moves to a new place, regardless of whether they just stepped out of town or moved to a country on a continent thousands of miles away. The immigrant experience brings mixed feelings. Nothing can be as confusing as being in an unfamiliar place, having said goodbye to lifelong family and friends, dealing with unfamiliar ways of thinking, speech, and attitudes that accentuate one’s otherness.
Immigrant seniors may experience limited mobility due to not having a vehicle or feeling comfortable to use public transportation, or due to health conditions. For older immigrants without family members, the challenge can be daunting enough to create a social confinement where they cannot make or maintain the social connections desperately needed to integrate. This can also limit the ability to acquire language skills critical for communication and success.
Responsibilities such as paying bills for immigrant seniors may become a nightmare that can prove disastrous, especially for those who have lived in a totally different system. Forgotten mail, missed appointments, miscommunicated responsibilities, and unpaid bills can be a source of anguish for immigrant seniors.
When it comes to the difficulties faced by immigrant seniors, sometimes all one has to do as a crucial first step towards understanding is to consider challenges faced by native born seniors, and then view these in the light of everything that comes with being in unfamiliar territory, feeling disconnected and invisible, without language and voice, due to having come from somewhere else and losing the way of life one has always known.
How can we engage with and support immigrant seniors like “Karina,” who each have an interesting perspective and experience of another part of the world to share? Many native-born Canadians know or witnessed their parents and grandparents’ immigration experiences and challenges, giving them empathy to share with newly arrived immigrant seniors.
Positive body language, like smiles, are always understood as an invitation to connect and that one is welcomed when there is a language barrier. All communication calls for patience and the willingness to repeat oneself when needed, sometimes choosing different words for the ease of the listener. Keeping a sense of humour reduces stress, and laughter is good for every heart. Helping an immigrant senior learn available programs and supports, find places to volunteer, and connect with people of all ages will contribute to their renewed sense of purpose, community connection, and vitality through all their adjustments.