Ethnic Communities and
the Challenge of Aging

By: Kappu Desai

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp.87-92
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Kappu Desai describes the South Asian tradition of multi-generation families. With regard to the problems of aging in Ontario there is a need for collaboration between the community and those who make public policy in the area. The new trend toward home care for the elderly is likely to be welcomed by South Asians.

The age at which one emigrates to a new homeland often has a major effect on the success and ease with which the acculturation process occurs. Those interested in aging issues are increasingly concerned by the plight of the elderly immigrant or refugee who leaves familiar surroundings for a new life fraught with uncertainty, at an age at which stability and tradition are often very important.

In this paper, however, I would like to approach the subject of aging and immigration from a different perspective, that of the individual who immigrated early in adulthood and who is aging in his or her adopted home land. I will present my thoughts in a very personal way, referring to my own Indian tradition and to the Indo-Canadian community in the city of Toronto.

As I became more familiar with aging-related issues through my experience at the National Advisory Council on Aging, I was struck by the fact that the Indo-Canadian community in Toronto was increasingly composed of people who were nearing or beyond middle age. The presence of a large number of seniors often enriches an ethnic community's sense of identity and provides a record of its cultural history and traditions.

This phenomenon also poses some very challenging questions to individual Indo-Canadians as well as to the community as a whole. Senior members may insist that their communities allow them to continue to function as an integral part of the community and to fulfil personally meaningful roles. They may also demand a reinforced sense of cultural identity, support and encouragement, especially in situations of increased dependency.

Characteristics of the Indo-Canadian Community in Toronto

In the 1950s only about 2,000 Indo-Canadians lived in Canada, and most of them were Sikhs living in British Columbia. By 1971, the number had risen to 68,000 with the majority in Ontario. In the 1986 census, 308,640 respondents across Canada gave Indo-Pakistani as their ethnic origin, either alone or in combination with another cultural identity.

The Indo-Canadian community of Toronto numbers about 80,000, or 2.7 per cent of that city's population, and is very heterogeneous. Its members speak twenty languages in some eight hundred dialects, practice ten religions, and come from a dozen countries divided into more than thirty states and territories.

Within the Indo-Canadian community, seniors (65 and over) constituted only 2.9 per cent of the total population in 1981. As shown in Table 1, this is very low compared to other ethnic groups. However, by the year 2000 the number of those over 65 will probably increase tenfold.

Indo-Canadians and Aging: the Example of the Hindu Community

The diversity of the Indo-Canadian community logically leads to very different experiences of aging among the members of various religions and cultural or linguistic groups. For historical reasons the Hindu community has fewer extended families to provide support for its elderly members compared to other Indo-Canadian groups, such as the Sikhs. The latter community grew mostly through sponsored immigration, a process that created a large number of close-knit families. Most of the aging members of the Hindu community, however, came to Canada in search of educational or professional advancement and have, in order to concentrate on their careers and personal success, neglected opportunities to create a strong network of extended-family relationships.

It is more than likely that the next generation in this community will be as motivated by achievement and self-realization as their parents have been. Their primary goal will probably also be personal success with little time or energy left for other pursuits. This is, in many cases, a foreseeable outcome of the acculturation process of second-generation immigrants and makes it doubtful that these immigrants will provide as much care to their parents as the latter expect.

Increased Importance of Religious Institutions

It is an intriguing corollary, that as their community ages, many Indo-Canadians seem to be turning more toward religious institutions. I see this as indicative of an identity crisis as well as an expression of their spiritual needs. Many explain this development by saying that they want to set an example for their children. However, religious institutions also provide a sense of security and a feeling of belonging. Religious pursuits also may help people come to terms with their own mortality, a reality that few have really been prepared to accept.

It is perhaps an integral part of the immigrant experience, especially where immigration is voluntary, to develop feelings of invincibility and to demonstrate overwhelming courage in facing the challenges of the future. But immigrants too often lose sight of the frailty and dependency that sometimes accompany aging. Perspectives change, however, when instead of celebrating births and marriages, we are visiting sick friends in hospital and attending funerals.

In the past few years many new Hindu temples and Sikh "gurdwaras" have opened in Toronto. Every subgroup seems to be devoting its energy and money to building religious structures rather than facilities to care for the aged. One cannot help but ask whether the use of the limited resources of the community should not be more diversified to respond to its members' varied needs.

Traditions of Family Care Giving in Indo-Canadian Families: Echoes of the Past

Indo-Canadian immigrants bring with them the customs they have acquired in their past. This culture, like all others, instils in its members ideas of what successful aging means, of the kind of respect due to an older member of society, and of the types of relationships that should exist between an elderly parent and his or her child.

When a person's expectations are not met in the adopted homeland, difficult adjustments can become necessary and much individual and family stress may develop. Although one cannot deny that changes have also occurred back home, the temptation is strong to believe that if they had remained in their own countries, they would have experienced aging more as a normal part of life, modelling themselves on their parents' and grandparents' behaviour. The traditional prestige and respect owed to seniors are quite common in India, especially outside of the large cities (Sikri and Kurian, 1988).

Despite the impact of the acculturation process inherent in immigration, many traditions do manage to remain alive in the community. The extended family system still remains central to many Indo-Canadians and has an important influence on values and behaviour. Parental authority is often still strong, and children's conduct is influenced by their parents. Each member of a family considers him or herself also to be part of an extended family as well as an independent individual. In many families, where possible, important decisions are not made without consultation with the whole family.

Adult Children and Their Aging Parents

Some traditions are gradually disappearing, however, under the influence of mainstream values and material limitations. One example involves the responsibilities of adult children toward their elderly parents. Substantial assistance in a variety of forms is still given to the elderly by their families, and the elderly also provide many services both within their families and in the rest of the community, such as giving advice, babysitting, helping with household tasks, providing temporary housing, giving or lending money, giving gifts, gardening, and providing transportation.

Although families are still the main source of social support of the elderly in the community, this support can cause stress within the family. Most of the daily responsibilities for caring for an older relative fall on one person, usually the wife, daughter, or daughter-in-law. Even if other immediate family members are nearby they often take a very limited part in the care giving. Sometimes the younger women who are called on to fill the care giving role are obliged give up their jobs to do so. If they do continue working outside the home, they risk extreme fatigue or stress because of the accumulation of their responsibilities. It is especially difficult for adult children to devote so much of their time and money to an aging parent when they have children of their own.

The Maya Mruga Syndrome

Many Indo-Canadian immigrants have unrealistic expectations about the lives they will lead in their later years. As Professor Kanungo so aptly put it, these immigrants tend to suffer from the "Maya Mruga" syndrome, or the great illusion that they will either go back to India to retire or will live with their children in the same household and that these children will take the responsibility for meeting all their needs. For many, these expectations have become idealistic and impractical.

On the one hand, the place one left as a child or young adult has certainly changed and is not likely the same as one might remember it. Even in societies where old social traditions are maintained, such as co-residence of young and old, the preference among both older and younger generations increasingly is toward separate lodgings to maintain privacy and independence. The fact that most elderly people do live in separate households in Canada is, of course, not necessarily a sign of weakened family ties.

On the other hand, although most of us can certainly expect to maintain close and very loving relationships with our children, we must also look at a way of creating a community in which we can also have physical, social, and emotional support from friends in our own ethnic communities as well as in the mainstream culture.

The Necessary Adjustments

The cultural heritage of Indo-Canadian seniors is an important strength that helps us preserve our sense of self and identity as we adjust to Canadian life. Because of the extended family environment in which we have lived and the pride we have in fulfilling our filial responsibilities, one cannot expect that we will ever accept the Western old age home.

As we age, however, we may need help that our families simply cannot supply. This may include a variety of in-home services, opportunities for meaningful activities to create a sense of contributing to society, seniors' residences, and drop-in centres that are designed and administered in a culturally sensitive way. These institutional or community-based support services are meant to aid seniors in ways that are well adapted to their needs.

These services attempt to help seniors live independently in partnership with their families and friends. It is recognized that families often give the bulk of the services that elderly people receive when they live in the community, and that this must be facilitated and supported as much as possible. Partnerships must be created between the private and public service sector.

As the recent studies of the National Advisory Council on Aging have shown, older people, like everyone else, want to be respected, to be able to make their own decisions, and not to be denied basic needs.

Those who are planning services for "ethnic" seniors are increasingly aware that these services must take the individual's culture and language into account. There are often important differences in the needs of people who have immigrated to Canada, even from the same country or ethnic group. These differences can be based on a number of factors, including their regional and religious identity, the situation in their homeland when they left, their reason for emigrating, certain characteristics of their families, the length of time they have spent in Canada; and whether their community is dispersed or concentrated, whether there is a supportive social network, and whether there are ethnic institutions.

Specially trained outreach workers could be useful in making the connection between "ethnic" seniors and the service-delivery systems, in their own language. Community funding support is already being made available in certain cases to ethnic communities to provide their own services and programs:

  • The Japanese community in Vancouver has developed its own Meals on Wheels program to provide familiar food to seniors who are confined to their homes or who are in hospitals or nursing homes;

  • The Ukrainian Canadian Social Services in Edmonton has established the Beta Project, where volunteers visit Ukrainians living in senior citizens' homes. Services include readings from Ukrainian literature, celebration of traditional holidays, and folk art activities;

  • In Vancouver's Chinatown, a Senior Power program has been established. Seniors know they are performing a useful function as they escort elementary school children to and from school each day;

  • The Armenian community in Edmonton is compiling information on the history of Armenian immigrants in Alberta. They hope to put this information into a book that will give the seniors a chance to tell their story of when and why they came to Alberta, and what their lives were like.

Similar programs could be established for South Asian seniors.


The number of elderly people in the Indo-Canadian community is not yet large enough to create a sense of urgency. However, this community, including its older members, must be prepared to call upon its own resources as well as to use government programs to meet the needs of older Indo-Canadians. We need to start now to identify these needs and to find solutions that are well-suited to our cultural values and expectations. We need to have a retirement community for Indo-Canadian seniors, not as a ghetto but because, with increasing age human nature often yearns for homogeneity and familiarity. Familiar foods, faces, sounds, and surroundings become of paramount importance. As we work with our seniors to improve the quality of their lives today, the whole community will be better prepared for the challenges that will face us tomorrow.

Kappu Desai is a biochemist, a community leader, and a member of the National Advisory Council on Aging.


Alberta Culture, "Understanding Seniors and Culture", Multicultural Activities Guide 3.

Drieger, L., and N. Chappell, "Aging and Ethnicity" (Toronto, 1987).

Gibson, M.J., "Family Support for the Elderly in International Perspective: Part I." In "Aging International, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 12-17.

Gozdziak, E., "New Branches...Distant Roots: Older Refugees in the United States." In "Aging", no. 359 (1989), pp. 2-7.

Johnson, H., "The Development of the Punjabi Community in Vancouver since 1961." In "Canadian Ethnic Studies", vol. 20, no. 2 (1988), pp. 1-19.

Multicultural Health Coalition, Author's notes from Workshop on Home Support for Multicultural Seniors (Ottawa, 1988).

St. Elizabeth Visiting Nurses' Association of Ontario, "Caring Across Cultures" (Toronto, 1989).

Secretary of State, "Aging in a Multicultural Canada: a Graphic Overview", Policy, Analysis and Research Directorate, Multiculturalism (Ottawa, 1988).

Sikri, A., and P. Kurian, "To Stay or Return: A Tough Decision for Immigrants in Middle Years." In "India Abroad", August 11, 1988.

Return to home page

Website design: TG Magazine, 1996