Family, Community and Spirituality Linked to Healthy Aging

Dr Ruth Dempsey

The world is growing old and its population is greying. One is 10 people today is over the age of 60. By 2050 this proportion will have doubled to one in five (UN statistics).

A new study conducted among older persons from 18 ethnic communities across Canada has identified family, community, and spirituality as key factors in healthy aging.

The study, funded by Health Canada, and carried out by the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, reported that ethnic seniors rated family as the most important factor for healthy aging (more than 81 per cent). While more than 78 per cent of ethnic seniors reported receiving support from families, only 55 per cent of mainstream seniors indicated similar support. Ethnic seniors expressed the desire to give back to their families by providing financial help, sharing personal experience, helping to look after grandchildren, and assisting with household chores.

A caring community was found to be a critical factor in providing an enabling environment for healthy aging. Seniors participated in a broad spectrum of activities in their communities including church and religious activities, community centres, volunteering, seniors groups, physical activities, Tai Chi, Reiki, Shiatsu, crafts, bingo, dancing, music concerts, picnics, and ESL classes. Older persons saw themselves as active, vital members of the community anxious to give as well as receive. They welcomed opportunities to teach and mentor the young, to organize and participate in community activities, to assist in community Care support, and to help with religious and cultural activities.

Still, the study found more could do done to support older persons, by providing appropriate health education in a culturally sensitive environment, organizing support groups for older people with various illnesses, ensuring a safe environment, arranging more media programs targeted toward the well – being of older persons, and providing opportunities to use computers.

And like other older persons, ethnic seniors sometimes experienced isolation. This isolation was further complicated by insufficient language and literacy skills, poor finances and inadequate social support, the study reported. Seniors from all ethnic communities recognized spirituality as a significant factor of healthy aging. They engaged in prayer, mediation, scripture reading, and attended places of worship. Seniors experienced little difficulty pursuing their spiritual practices. Plentiful opportunities were available in their communities, they said.

The study, Ethnic Seniors and Healthy Aging: Perceptions, Practices, and Needs, revealed that a majority of its participants reported good health. Other factors contributing to well – being were exercise, money, food, housing, independence, and transportation.

Most seniors reported making lifestyle changes after age 55, such as increasing physical activity, relaxation exercises and better eating habits. They felt that these changes had improved physical and mental health and energy. Ethnic seniors said they favoured a combination of Western and alternative medicine in treating illnesses. Previous studies have shown that as people age, the role of culture assumes a greater importance in their lives, shaping their attitudes toward pain, ideas of well – being, notions of appropriate treatment, dietary preferences and ways of communicating. As a followup, the soon – to – be – released second phase of the study identified 40 programs from across the country offering services for healthy aging that is culturally sensitive and appropriate to the population served.

“It is hoped that these best practice models will assist health agencies and health care providers to deliver culturally appropriate care,” said Dr. Susy Eapen, the study’s principal investigator.

In our own society, we have largely done away with roles for older persons, beyond that of consumer, only to find we are haunted by the terror of aging within ourselves. Confronted with a world growing old, we now have the opportunity to create, in the framework of our democracy, and spiritual and religious traditions, sources of meaning of the sort that are the birthright of other cultures.

For further information on the study contact the Canadian Ethnocultural Council at cec@web.net