Elderly immigrant women at risk without English

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      Maggie Ip will never forget her conversation with an elderly Chinese woman who had recently immigrated to Canada. Ip, the founding chair of the multicultural agency S.U.C.C.E.S.S., was volunteering at a free tax clinic, and she could tell something was wrong with the woman sitting across from her. When Ip asked if she was okay, she started to cry. The woman—a widow who didn’t speak any English and had no formal education—told Ip that her son had kicked her out of the family home. He had arranged for her to live in a tiny, windowless room underneath the staircase in a stranger’s home, where she could only access her meagre space whenever the owner was home to let her in. The woman had no support and no knowledge of the services that were available to her and other women like her in similar dire straits.

      “This lady cried her heart out,” Ip said at a recent forum hosted by Sharon Koehn, a researcher at the Centre for Healthy Aging at Providence, as well as members of iCARE (Immigrant Older Women—Care, Accessibility, Research and Empowerment), a group of researchers, health professionals, and community workers. “It reminded me that there is a large number of this kind of woman out there, living in a basement somewhere”¦in a helpless situation.”

      Ip—a former Vancouver city councillor who was born in Shanghai in 1943 and came to Canada in 1966—was one of several speakers at the June 25 event, which aimed to shed light on the plight of visible-minority older immigrant women, with a focus on accessing health and social services.

      According to the 2006 census, 51 percent of Vancouver residents are visible minorities. The largest group, those of Chinese descent, represents 29.4 percent of Vancouver’s population. According to a 2005 Statistics Canada report, non-European immigrants are more likely than the Canadian-born population to report having low social support.

      Mohinder Sidhu, who works for various local seniors advocacy organizations, explained at the forum that there are many barriers to care for older immigrant women. The lack of knowledge of English is just one, albeit a big one.

      “Most seniors [who come from South Asia] don’t understand what other people say; they can’t read or write,” said Sidhu, who was born in Punjab in 1935 and came to Canada in 1970. “Growing up in India, girls have less access to education than boys. In our culture, girls are [expected] to make families and stay at home, knitting, sewing, cooking, and doing housework. Some are even illiterate in their mother tongue. There are no schools in some villages.”

      Once in Canada, many of these women feel lost, quite literally: it’s hard for them to decipher the public-transportation system, never mind navigating the health-care system.

      “Life without English means they can’t even take the bus,” Sidhu said. “They only remember the numbers of the bus. They rely on their children to get them to doctor’s appointments, but they hesitate to ask [their working children] to get spare time for them.”

      The communication problem doesn’t end there. When they do seek medical care, older visible-minority women may not understand what the doctor is saying to them.

      “They may say yes even when they don’t understand when the doctor is explaining something,” Sidhu said. “The problem of language can be invisible to doctors. They will say yes because they’re tired of saying, ”˜I don’t understand.’ ”

      The lack of comprehension can drastically affect their well-being, Sidhu explained. Many in the local South Asian community have diabetes, a condition that requires regular monitoring of blood-glucose levels and, in some cases, insulin injections. Learning how to read glucose meters and take care of themselves can be a challenge for many older immigrant women.

      Immigration status itself imposes a barrier. Many seniors are subject to a 10-year dependency period associated with sponsorship and don’t have full access to government financial assistance or health services.

      Sidhu added that it’s common for Indian families to bring older women to Canada strictly so that they can cook, clean, and take care of children.

      “They view older women only as caregivers,” said Sidhu, who heads a walking club for Indian women, has taught cooking classes in Punjabi for people with diabetes, and would like to start a community kitchen. “As women age and they become unable to cook, clean, and care for the children, the families may become angry with them. This can cause unhappiness or abuse.”

      The families of some seniors expect them to work on farms or in factories if they’re not taking care of children.

      “It’s hard labour,” Sidhu said. “They work 12 hours a day, and that makes their health worse.”

      Many also experience depression.

      “They are depressed over the loss of family and friends in India; a loss of income; they have hard work, neglect, and elder abuse,” Sidhu noted. “There is isolation. There are not enough places to sit and talk.”¦They don’t have money for community programs.”

      They also don’t know what they’re legally entitled to in Canada, such as services like home support and low-income housing.

      Sidhu said it would help if immigrants had better access to interpreters as well as health workshops in their own language. Furthermore, having shuttle buses run from community centres to places of worship would enable seniors to meet and talk with their peers. Training in practical skills like reading bus schedules, shopping for household items, and talking to doctors would also help.

      The aim of the forum, Koehn said, was to build on research that will lead to new policies directly benefiting the day-to-day lives of older visible-minority immigrant women. The ultimate goal, of course, is an improvement of their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.