Virtual Communities for Chinese Seniors in Social Isolation by Christine Chung
Background on Gerontological Research in a Cultural Context
There is a vital need to improve the strategies for prolonging independence and quality of health in later life. According to the results of the 2016 census, Canada is home to 5.9 million seniors aged 65 and older. With the large cohort of baby boomers transitioning into this age group, the senior population will nearly double by 2030 (Statistics Canada, 2011). Furthermore, this population is becoming increasingly diverse, and visible minorities represent a significant and growing share of the older population in Canada (Ng, Lai, & Rudner, 2012). Nearly 60% of seniors living in Canada are immigrants and 18% are visible minorities (Statistics Canada, 2011). Out of the various visible minority groups, the largest is of Chinese descent. As a result, the total population of ethnic Chinese is substantially increasing, accounting for 25.8% of all visible minorities and making it the largest visible minority group in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2011).
Despite changes in health as aging progresses, the desire to maintain autonomy for as long as possible and age in place also becomes more prevalent (Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists [CAOT], 2019). While enabling seniors to age in place positively contributes to their sense of wellbeing, independence, social participation, and health, there is no one-size-fits-all solution (Sixsmith & Sixsmith, 2008). Social equity in the context of aging in place exists when everyone has access to the opportunities necessary to safely and independently satisfy their essential needs, advance their well-being, and achieve their full potential in their homes or their communities for as long as they wish or are able (Howe, 2018). With respect to aging identities, social gerontology has acknowledged the socially constructed nature of aging, and has shown how old age and later life are socially and structurally constituted, represented, and understood (Buffel, Handler, & Phillipson, 2019). Yet the lives of people experiencing disadvantage in later life can challenge this positive inclusive portrayal, particularly when compounded by cultural, social, and economic Circumstances.
The imperative to age in place draws on cultural understanding of place and home. The acquisition and maintenance of a home has become a sign of adulthood, competency, and independence (Penney, 2013). The home is considered the main arena to successfully age in place. Linking independence with “living alone” fails to take into account the various traditional cultural values that shape individual understandings of ideal physical environments for aging. Asian beliefs, including Chinese, stress collectivism and centrality of family over individualism thus multi-generational households are not uncommon (Lai & Leonenko, 2007). The Chinese culture places a strong emphasis on hierarchical relationships and providing care to the elderly family members, and thus the most common living arrangement of elderly Chinese is living in some form of familial household structure (Lai & Leonenko, 2007). While immigrant seniors are less likely to live alone than their Canadian-born counterparts, nearly 40% of single elderly Chinese immigrants reported to be living alone (Lai & Leonenko, 2007). Research indicates that seniors who live alone are likely to experience social isolation, limited social support, and overall negative health impacts (Gee, 2000). When considering the gender and cultural systematic barriers to aging in place, along with the clashing cultural ideals of individual independence versus the greater collective, the majority of older Chinese women living alone face compounded negative impacts to health, support, economic status and social connection.
Changing Communities & Aging
Studies reveal that fostering age-friendly community environments promotes social interaction in later life (Evans, 2018). Studies also show that social interaction can positively impact health status and overall well-being of older immigrants, reinforcing the importance of fostering positive community environments for aging minorities in Canada. The current pandemic places older populations under firm social distancing protocols, and the resulting social isolation can negatively impact the physical, cognitive, and mental health of seniors. Chinese seniors are not free from mental health problems and concerns — depression is a genuine and emerging issue faced by Chinese older adults (Ng, Lai, & Rudner, 2012). Simple, regular activities are proven to help with depression. A recent study indicates that activities like tai chi and mahjong can have positive effects on the mental states of Chinese seniors (Zhang et. al, 2020). As the current pandemic recommends maintaining social distancing, alternative methods of participation via virtual environments are recommended to encourage regular participation in mental and physical activities while in social isolation (Nimrod, 2010). By combining activities tailored towards the Chinese senior community and a culturally appropriate virtual community to deliver these activities, it is hoped that this project can reduce the negative impacts on the mental and physical states of older Chinese people in the GTA.
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