Muslim Seniors: Challenges and Positive Aging Experiences

by Dr. Abdelfettah Elkchirid and Jahan Zeb
As published in the Hamilton Spectator on March 11, 2020

Muslims are currently among the fastest-growing minority groups in Canada. They represent 3.2 per cent of Canada’s total population, slightly over one million. According to Daood Hamdani of the Canadian Dawn Foundation, Muslim seniors account for 5.6 per cent or 59,205 of Canada’s Muslim population.

Caring for the elderly population is a solemn duty among Muslims across multi-ethnic and collectivistic traditions ranging from Africa, Middle East, South and Southeast Asia and Europe. In their homelands, Muslim seniors receive high respect from their children, grandchildren and neighbours.

As a result of this tradition of appreciation, they feel less social isolation and fewer mental health challenges. Muslim seniors also remain actively involved in their family and community affairs. Indeed, seniors in Muslim countries are usually surrounded by people in ceremonies of happiness and sorrows such as weddings and the passing away of loved ones. They are often sought out for their wisdom and life experiences in their communities. They help resolve disputes among families and neighbours.

In contrast to their valued social position in Muslim countries, Muslim seniors in Western countries encounter social isolation, compounded by physical and mental health challenges. Due to the lack of faith-based and culturally appropriate services and facilities, Muslim seniors are reluctant to access seniors residences and services in Western countries.

Dr. Raza Khan (chair of the RehmaCare — an organization of Long-Term Care Homes in Ontario) notes that existing service models in Canada are not designed to meet the Islamic culture and values of Muslim seniors. Muslim seniors eat Halal food, processed under Islamic dietary laws. They do their ablutions five times a day as part of their purification before praying. They attend collective prayer every Friday.

Some seniors (if their health allows) also fast in the holy month of Ramadan, and do not eat between sunrise and sunset. Besides, some Muslim women, especially senior woman, avoid physical contact such as a handshake or hug with unrelated men. Javid Mirza (president of the Muslim Association of Hamilton) echoes Dr. Khan’s concerns. Miza reports that Muslim seniors who migrate in late age under the Family Class Sponsorship Program feel more loneliness and isolation due to the language barrier.

Providing care to older Muslim parents could put family members in financial and social stress due to the lack of friends and extended family support in Canada. As a result and while Muslim seniors in Western countries are in general held to high consideration within their families and Muslim communities, some of them do encounter neglect, isolation and depression while family members are at work or busy in their own lives. This issue should be of particular concern as many Muslim seniors experiencing elder neglect or mental illness are not inclined to seek help, in part because seniors services agencies and facilities may not respond to their religious and cultural needs.

According to Dr. Ellen Ryan (gerontologist with Hamilton Aging in Community), agencies entrusted with protecting and serving seniors have an ethical and moral responsibility to provide equitable care and resources to Muslim seniors in order to afford them quality health, well-being, and social participation. “We have organized the upcoming Forum on Supporting Muslim Seniors and their Families so that service providers and Hamilton-area residents can learn how to improve services directed to this underserved group,” said Dr. Ryan.

PLEASE NOTE: DUE TO RECENT ESCALATIONS IN CONCERNS REGARDING COVID-19, THE UPCOMING PANEL DISCUSSING SUPPORT FOR AGING AND WELL-BEING FOR HAMILTON’S MUSLIM SENIORS AND THEIR FAMILIES HAS BEEN CANCELLEDWe apologize for any inconvenience due to this cancellation. Please contact songh10@mcmaster.ca or (905) 5270877 with any questions.