Listening to our elders

September 28, 2017

Research looks for ways to bring aging immigrants into mainstream social and political life


Age may be just a number, but as more and more Canadians celebrate birthdays requiring multiple packages of candles, a MacEwan University social work prof says we need to take a hard look at how we provide services for older people.

“Our society—and many others—are facing the reality of increasingly aging populations,” says Dr. Hongmei Tong, assistant professor in the Bachelor of Social Work program. “It’s a demanding issue because the changes connected to aging aren’t just biological, they are also psychological and social. We need to understand those things and what they mean for our society, and how we can provide better services to address them.”

With $172,853 of funding over five years from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant, Hongmei is looking at how policy makers, service providers and communities can support aging immigrants to fully engage in mainstream social and political life.

“ We need to study, we need to teach and we need to practice how to take care of elderly people. We need to do more.” Hongmei Tong 

The current work is an extension of her earlier research that focused on social exclusion and health of elderly people in Shanghai, China. In those studies, she discovered that two out of five older Chinese people experienced multiple exclusions—things like having difficulty accessing services or housing, being financially disadvantaged, or not being able to participate in community activities. That research, and other Canadian studies she contributed to, also found that being excluded socially can have serious implications on physical and mental health of older adults.

IMAGE_STORY_Hongmei_TongSometimes younger people just don’t feel comfortable working with the elderly. It means that you must think about the losses in life that come with aging, and those are not issues that some younger people want to face. But to me, elderly people are like books—the more you read, the more you will love them and learn from them.

I think the most important thing is to just remember that older people want to have self-esteem and be respected. They deserve that.

— Hongmei Tong

“I’ve interviewed over 100 elderly immigrants as part of my research into social exclusion and health, and I remember clearly one woman who shared her story with me,” says Hongmei. “She was from China and spoke about feeling so isolated in the city she now lived in. She couldn’t speak English and she struggled to access services, and it really affected her health status. She wanted to contribute, but she felt so scared, vulnerable and alone.” 

The issue and effects of social exclusion are clear, so Hongmei is now shifting her focus and looking for ways to help seniors integrate socially into the communities in which they live. At least part of the answer, she believes, can be found in civic engagement—attending community events, voting, volunteering, donating and belonging to a community group or organization.

As part of her SSHRC-funded study, Hongmei will be interviewing and conducting focus groups with Asian immigrants—the largest group of immigrants to Canada. She’ll be researching what Edmontonians originally from China, India and the Philippines think about civic participation, the barriers they face in getting involved in their communities, and how their unique historical, cultural, political and societal backgrounds influence how they participate.

Ultimately, she hopes to identify culturally appropriate strategies and approaches that can be used to make it easier for older adults to get involved.

“I’m passionate about this research,” says Hongmei. “We need to study, we need to teach and we need to practice how to take care of elderly people. We need to do more.”

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