Immigrant seniors lonelier than those born in Canada but research lacking: StatCan

After arriving from China in February 2016, Xihong Liu endured a Calgary winter that left him feeling socially isolated long after the snow gave way to spring sunshine.

The fear of falling on icy sidewalks initially kept him indoors but not having any friends in his adopted homeland was a big factor in the loneliness that dogged him daily, even as he eventually started venturing out to try and connect with other Mandarin-speaking seniors.

Statistics Canada released the findings of a survey Wednesday showing older people who immigrated to Canada as adults were more likely to experience loneliness than those who were born here.

It said loneliness has become an important concern because of its effect on health, including disability and frailty, as well as mental health issues.

The survey of nearly 39,000 respondents aged 65 and up showed that 1.1 million older people experienced loneliness between 2019 and 2020.

It found loneliness was also higher among women and those living with multiple chronic illnesses.

Liu and his wife, who he said had a somewhat easier time adjusting to life in Canada, relocated from the bustling port city of Tianjin to live with their son and daughter-in-law in Calgary.

But the 72-year-old said the couple yearned the company of people their own age, so they eventually headed to Calgary’s Chinatown, only to find that the hour-long commute by bus and train was too exhausting.

“I had a lot of friends in Mainland China but now we couldn’t see each other,” Liu said through a translator with the Calgary Chinese Elderly Citizens Association.

Its programs helped him make some friends as he began participating in events such as dancing and singing about four times a week.

But his lack of English has been the biggest barrier, said Liu, who took some English classes through the free federally funded Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program, which also offers French lessons for eligible adults.

He remembered the sting of discrimination from one store employee in particular when he couldn’t speak English.

“I felt frustrated because I understand why that staff person would be annoyed because I speak just Mandarin and she didn’t understand me.”

Not being able to communicate with a doctor about his medical history, including high blood pressure and insomnia, was also stressful, said Liu, who was finally able to find a Mandarin-speaking physician.

“But going a specialist is a challenge because I need to take my son. And if he can’t accompany me I need to find a translator,” he said.

Liza Chan, executive director of the Calgary Chinese Elderly Citizens Association, said some senior immigrants from China and Hong Kong are dependent on their children in Canada.

“They don’t have a lot of money and they feel lonely,” she said. “We can arrange a volunteer to visit them to reduce their loneliness. They don’t need money for that.”

Some seniors become depressed and may need the help of the association’s social worker who could refer them to a counsellor or connect them with a support group, she said.

The association also picks up seniors from their homes so they can participate in activities, especially if taking a bus because of mobility issues is too difficult for those who are frail, Chan said.

Chris Friesen, chief operating officer of the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, said new immigrants who don’t have any family in Canada are most at risk of loneliness.

“That is part and parcel of their cultural adjustment as they rebuild their lives in this country,” Friesen said of government-assisted refugees whocame to Canada because they risked persecution in their homeland.

Even missing the bonds of a community in a refugee camp leaves people feeling lonely as they adjust to a new life where the high cost of living and the lack of housing are big issues for many people in the general population, he said.

“Until people have found permanent housing, they can’t establish roots. They can’t get their children enrolled in school or start looking for employment. They need a permanent address, and that is becoming more and more challenging in certain areas of Canada.”

Statistics Canada noted there are few Canadian studies about loneliness that are separated by gender and subgroups of older Canadians, especially those who are immigrants.

A study published in June in the journal BMC Geriatrics said a survey of 968 immigrants and 1,703 Canadian-born adults in Ontario showed poor mental and physical health and lower income were some factors associated with loneliness among those who moved to Canada.

It said that for those who were born in Canada, issues linked to loneliness included living alone and having poor mental health.

Future research on loneliness should focus on diversity within immigrant populations, which face various systemic issues to living, working and socializing in Canada, the study says.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2023.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

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