'Significant' health gaps found between Canadian and immigrant seniors
Two-thirds of seniors in the GTA are immigrants, and they’re more likely to report fair-to-poor health and mental health than their Canadian counterparts.
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Eighty-year-old Sung-hak Choi keeps active and healthy by volunteering in the community and caring for her seven grandchildren.
“There are many challenges for immigrant seniors to stay healthy. Many come with their children, at an older age. They are cut off from the support network in their old country” said Choi, who immigrated to Canada in 1982 with her family and four children.
“I am lucky I can communicate in English. Language is the biggest barrier for these seniors. They are not familiar with the system here and must depend on other people who can speak English to help them.”
With the latest census showing more seniors than children living in Canada, a new study by the Wellesley Institute has identified “significant” disparities in self-reported health and mental health between Canadian and immigrant seniors, especially those who are “racialized” — or racial minorities — and from non-English background.
“Immigrant seniors, especially those who arrived more recently, reported poorer health status, in both overall health and mental health, than non-immigrant seniors,” said the report, “Seniors’ Health in the GTA,” released Tuesday.
“While only 19 per cent of non-immigrant seniors reported fair/poor health, 34 per cent of recent and mid-term immigrants and 26 per cent of long-term immigrants rated their health as fair/poor. Similar patterns were found in self-reported mental health.”
According to census data released in May, there were 5.9 million people aged 65 and older in Canada, just above the 5.8 million children under 14 — showing the country’s elderly population surpassing its youth population for the first time.
In the GTA, nearly two in three seniors were immigrants. Among all immigrant seniors, 43 per cent were visible minorities and 69 per cent reported a mother tongue that was not English.
The composition of immigrant seniors in the region is also changing rapidly, with 82 per cent of the recent arrivals being from a racialized background and 88 per cent reported a non-English mother tongue (versus 27 per cent and 62 per cent, respectively, among long-term immigrant seniors who have been in Canada for more than 30 years).
“Two thirds of seniors in Greater Toronto are immigrants. The demographics has changed, the need for health care has changed,” said Seong-gee Um, a co-author of the study with fellow researcher Naomi Lightman.
“There has been more recognition of these changes, but not much has been done to address the gaps.”
Based on the Canadian Community Health Survey data collected between 2007 and 2014, the researchers identified a sample of 10,125 seniors and compared the five social determinants of health (income, employment, education, sense of belonging and health-care access) with the self-reported health status among Canadians and immigrants who have been in Canada for different lengths of time.
They also examined if the health status of the immigrant group varied for those who were visible minorities and have a mother tongue beside English.
Overall, 40 per cent of seniors rated their general health as excellent/very good, while 67 per cent of seniors described their mental health the same.
However, the ratings differed significantly across the diverse senior populations by immigration status, length of time in Canada, mother tongue and if the subjects are racial minorities.
Um said the disparities in health have much to do with how one’s racialized identity, English language ability and immigrant background impact negatively on the social determinants of health.
The study found:
- Racialized immigrants were nearly twice as likely as non-racialized immigrants to rely on social assistance as their main source of income (14.7 per cent versus 7.5 per cent).
- The rate of low-income for racialized seniors was 15.4 per cent, more than twice as high as the rate for non-racialized seniors (7.2 per cent).
- Three in 10 seniors with English as mother tongue have been employed or self-employed in the last year, compared to just 21.5 per cent among their non-English mother-tongue counterparts.
- Sixty per cent of recent immigrant seniors reported a strong sense of belonging, compared to 75 per cent for Canadians, 64 per cent of those who have been here for 21 to 30 years and 73 per cent who had been here for 31-plus years.
“There is definitely a need for more targeted approaches in service planning and delivery to improve health equity and make sure we have proper ethnospecific care,” said Um.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean we need additional resources. It just means we need to redeploy some of our existing resources to cater to the changing needs and be creative.”
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