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Study: Growing Old in an Adopted Land


Twenty years ago, war and famine in Somalia sparked an exodus that brought large numbers of Somalis to Canada’s national capital, Ottawa.

Over the past two decades, the community has established businesses and created the Somali Centre for Family Services, which offers a wide spectrum of services.

According to Statistics Canada (2006), however, the Somali community remains the poorest visible minority in Ottawa with an annual median income of only $20,311.

Facing age

Researchers have now examined Somalis’ experience of growing old in Ottawa. The University of Ottawa study focused on first generation Somali-Canadians.

Researchers found that, in general, Somali men and women view aging positively, but men were more critical than women about the challenges of aging in Canada.

Led by Martine Legacé, the study was based on two focus groups. The first group was made up of nine women aged 55 to 83 years of age. The second group consisted of eight men with an average age of 62 years. All the participants, with the exception of one male, had children (an average of seven) spread over Canada and Somalia.

The research was published online in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology on September 2, 2012.

Somali women

Somali women talked about aging as a "blessing." They described the aging process as enriching from a psychological and spiritual perspective. It allows a person to gain more and more "experience," and grow in "knowledge" and "wisdom."

Participants also talked about the challenges of age, especially chronic disease. "When you’re young, you’re like a growing tree," said one woman. "But when you get older, you lose your strength."

Another linked physical decline with loss: "As a woman, you lose your strength and you lose your beauty."

Growing old in Canada

Women praised Canada’s social support and public health system. "When we left, we did not think that we would survive," one participant said. "In Canada, I realized I would [survive]. I am happy to be here today."

Moreover, participants expressed deep gratitude: "I have diabetes now," one woman explained. "After 70 years of life, I cannot help myself now. Canada has helped me and I thank Canada and its people and the Somali community."

Researchers found the women were less positive about the social aspects of aging, pointing to a lack of elder roles in Canadian society. They quoted a Somali saying, "Everybody is useful and needed, even the old woman standing at the corner of a building."

Participants claimed elders’ feelings of usefulness in Somali society are linked to strong family bonds. According to one woman: "To see my children and grandchildren and to see their homes and be near them, that is when I feel most useful."

But the women also talked of changing views among the younger generation: "Respecting elders was a norm in Somali, not so in Canada . . . " said a participant.

Participants were critical of seniors’ homes, which they said marginalized old people, "We would not like to be there," said one woman. "I would rather die."

Social life

Women complained of few opportunities to socialize. "There is a lack of socialization . . . even your children have no time for you."

The participants were frustrated by their lack of knowledge of the English or French language, which made it difficult for them to interact with other older Canadians. "I cannot understand what is going on around me as I only speak Somali," explained a participant.

As well, the winter weather increased the women’s sense of social isolation. "There is little sunshine, too much snow and not as much walking."

Somali men

In the men’s group, discussion focused primarily on the differences between growing old in Somali and growing old in Canada.

"The real fact is that aging in my society and here are two different things," one participant said. "Here, it (aging) is an inconvenience. Back home, they are taking care of themselves, they are part of a leading group . . . there is a system of integrating the elderly."

Participants said that older Canadians are deprived of their role as consultants and decision-makers. "Here, you just sit in coffee shops, back home you become an elder."

Men talked about age and physical decline but they also mentioned gains in experience and wisdom.

Like Somali women, male participants unanimously rejected the idea of senior homes. "A human being must keep links with his family and friends," explained one man. "I feel that seniors homes are places where society throws its waste . . . I would rather die than go there."

Participants emphasized the importance of interacting with residents in senior homes in culturally appropriate ways.

"For example, healthcare workers in Canadian seniors’ homes should be culturally trained to gain some basic knowledge about different cultures and different traditions," one man said. "In the case of Somali culture, mosques should be built as well as private rooms to welcome the numerous family members, food is also very important and so on."

All the men said they wished to return to their homeland to live out their final years: "I will not wait to become a dependent elder in Canada," said a participant. "I will return to Somali where my children will not hesitate to take a plane and visit me when I need them to do so."