World Elder Awareness Day
“I am an Ontarian and I am here to stay.”
Integrating Services for All Seniors in Our Community
Address by J. Narayan M.S.W.
I would also like to thank the planning and organizing committee for making this conference possible. I also wish to especially thank my friend and colleague Arlene Groh, who told me about this conference many months ago and invited me to participate. I first met Arlene when she was a board member for a local not-for-profit organization and I was the interim executive director. The board at the time was lost in the wilderness and Arlene helped to provide the moral compass for the group finding its way back to its purpose. Arlene continues to use the strength of current research, best practices, as well as moral persuasion in the local, national, and international work she does for the prevention of elder abuse. We are grateful for her vision, passion, and commitment for the wellness and well being of elders including those who have made our community and our country their home.
The title of this conference “I am an Ontarian and I am here to stay,” is to shift awareness that newcomers are not visitors, but citizens. The other shift is the intention to integrate services and supports to be inclusive of all elder Ontarians not only those born here. The way services were organized in the health, social and educational services lacked the vision, the leadership, the mechanisms and pathways for integration and inclusion. There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the changing demographics in our community. Service providers would often claim lack of funding to be able to respond to newcomers, especially seniors. Today’s conference is to create those pathways of inclusion. Settlement services which do the work to settle newcomers had and still have fragile connections to mainstream services, if there are any connections at all. Today, we are together at the same conference with the intention to make these connections.
By definition, a person is an immigrant for a short period of time until he or she becomes a citizen with all the rights and privileges granted to all Canadians. As citizens, they have access to all provincial services. Many of us still call ourselves immigrants after 20, 30, or 40 years of living here. Making that claim speaks to our dual identity and that in reality our souls travel in two spheres: the present sphere which we embrace and the one left behind. I am an Ontarian and I am here to stay is an assertive claim for inclusion and access. In our community many continue to view culturally diverse individuals and groups as not belonging, which leads to exclusion. This is especially so if they wear traditional clothes, speak with accents, have different skin colour, and are of multiple faiths. There have been many studies over the past twenty years about the needs of immigrants and the barriers they face in becoming integrated and included in our community. Studies about under-employment, lack of mental health services, lack of access to health care, barriers faced by children entering school, studies on violence in women’s lives, studies on racism and oppression, studies on barriers to housing, and the list goes on. Twenty years later we are still studying these issues. It should be noted that immigrants did not create these barriers. They have inherited them from systems reluctant to change. However, little has been studied or documented about elders who emigrated with their children, or followed after to join them, or who came as refugees seeking asylum. Emigration is the most disruptive and socially dislocating experience in an individual’s life, and in the life of a family. The changes are multiple – they are social, emotional, economic, and spiritual. For so many the experience is overwhelming, even frightening.
For elders, their experience is invisible, which could be even more difficult even traumatic. A grandmother or grandfather who had a lifetime of social connections in country of origin is suddenly isolated from those connections. This forces many to become dependent on their adult children thus experiencing a distressing loss of autonomy. While many elders feel grateful to be living in a peaceful country, their dependence is often internalized into feelings of depression, guilt, anger, helplessness, and not infrequently despair. When my mother died inGuyanaand my siblings and I wanted my dad to come with us, he said, “InGuyanaI am me, inCanadawho would I be, a nobody.”
Emigration often shifts gender roles and requires a level of adaptation and flexibility many times beyond the capacity of a couple to navigate on their own. When this family also includes an elder or elders, the vulnerability of the whole family and each member of the family increases. As we know, families and individuals who experience escalating levels of stress and distress often have serious consequences, such as anger, violence, illness both mental and physical. The potential for abuse when stress and distress are unrelieved is very high. Like all families under high levels of stress, blaming and accusing others as the problem is common. The role confusion for many elders adds to the stress because for so many, there is a sense of loss of identity. In all cultures relationships with in laws are culturally defined and evolve over time. In newcomer families which include elders, where roles and relationships are rigid and follow patterns of behavior from countries of origin, tension and conflict between the couple and the elders easily escalate.
In many cultures, the role of a son is to look after his parents as they age. When that expectation is transferred here, many daughters in law show resentment for what they experience as displacement and differential treatment for her mother in law. Another variation is when the resentment in the daughter in law further isolates the elder. These are some of the current issues for family counseling practitioners, some of whom are here today.
Many grandparents living with their adult children fill the role of childcare providers for their grandchildren. Where this arrangement works everyone benefits. The potential for conflict arises when the grandparents do not understand that children living here are encouraged and taught to speak up, ask questions, and challenge limits, it’s called autonomy. For example a four-year-old child in a kindergarten classroom is coached to make presentations to the whole class which is called “show and tell”. This could be very difficult for grandparents who expect obedience and deference. The psychological dissonance of grandparents further increases when grandchildren are able to negotiate the social world more successfully than they can.
There’s a group of colleagues in our community who are the first professionals to meet newcomer families and who see, hear and are able to discuss how these layered relationships are working out as they help families negotiate new pathways. These colleagues are settlement workers. I recently heard their title may change, but I hope this does not happen because it might dilute their function and/or minimize their role. Many professionals in settlement services are here today.
I see today as a significant turning point and a wonderful opportunity for bridge building and spanning boundaries. Integration of services and inclusion of all elder Ontarians are intentional processees requiring leadership to ensure inclusive policies transform into inclusive practices. It requires collaboration (and remember collaboration takes time) which transform concepts into mutually beneficial concrete practices. Processees which require that we apply current knowledge about current demographics. Mainstream services have done more talking the talk not walking the walk. Now together we have the opportunity to work in partnership with agencies serving immigrants and refugees.
We need to change the word barrier to the word bridge; the word barrier creates negative energy while the word bridge creates possibilities. We have learned that the majority of newcomers have strong connections to their faith community. This makes it important for pastors, imams, gurus, and other religious teachers to be more attentive to family stress and distress and how this affects elders in those families. Some religious leaders who often promote family harmony and deny family violence make it difficult for families to disclose family stress and distress that leads to violence and to ask for help. Members of congregations must negotiate with their faith leaders to change attitudes regarding violent behaviors. Workers who are family counselors need to ask the tough questions about the wellbeing of elders. We know that prevention works when problems are identified early and support is put in place. We know that when there’s violence in a family, safety of the vulnerable must be the priority for their own protection. We know there are times when our laws must trump cultural norms. We know that when we work in partnership more options are possible to protect the vulnerable and prevent violence.
I wish to close by honoring my professional colleagues in health and social services. Our values, our education, and our training have given us the tools for change. Our practice becomes more effective and sustainable when we are open to joining with other colleagues who have diverse perspectives gained from their lived experience as newcomers. We have everything we need to move forward together, and I’d like to share this Sufi saying. “We only learn what we already know.” Thank you.