“We came to a very lonely island”

Screenshot 2019-08-08 at 9.30.55 AM For older migrants living in a foreign land, connectedness with others plays a particularly important role in achieving a sense of belonging and sustaining health and well‐being. Therefore we were very interested in how the older Chinese and Korean participants in our Ageing Well social connectedness study were faring in terms of their current experiences of isolation and loneliness. Unfortunately we found that they weren’t faring very well. 

We conducted in‐depth semi‐structured interviews with 10 Chinese‐ or Korean‐speaking migrants aged between 75 and 84 years and three focus groups with 10 Chinese‐ and Korean‐speaking migrants and 5 Chinese professionals. All older people were late life migrants to Aotearoa, New Zealand.

We found that older Asian migrants experienced high levels of isolation and loneliness at least at some points in their migrant lives. Most participants in this study were living alone or with only their spouse, and this living arrangement provided fertile ground for isolation and loneliness to grow in the context of later‐life migration. Their lonely ageing ironically resulted from their efforts to preserve family relationships through avoiding being a burden, while allowing them a sort of space to maintain now barely connected lives. As one participant recounted:

I live alone … suffering from back pain … I didn’t tell her [my daughter] about my back [pain]. I don’t want this to bother their  lives. They have work. Sometimes when they say they want to come [visit], I said “Don’t …” … It’s too much trouble [for them to come] … When I’m too old, I’ll go to a retirement home  … I told my daughter not to think about me.

Most participants in this study faced a form of “double” isolation in their later‐life migrant context. In other words, they were isolated not only from their previous homeland networks, but also from social contacts in their new environment. Their physical routines appeared to be extremely limited by multiple external factors such as public transportation, housing, the accessibility, affordability and familiarity of social and leisure activities, and significant language barriers.

As one older woman described:

When we just arrived, we did not know anyone [except our family] … we were not used to the lifestyle here … I felt we came to a lonely island, … especially for me … the language issue … With some activities, our lives could be more colourful [enjoyable]. … If we do not go out to do activities, we will be very lonely.

However, participants did described the efforts they went to to alleviate their loneliness, including reading, visit the library, going for walks, volunteering, joining a church, and learning to drive.

Our findings have significant implications for practice, service, and research:

  1. Promoting social connection among migrants should be recognised as a health and social care issue requiring urgent and effective intervention to prevent further problems.
  2. Cultural influence is obvious not only in how older migrants perceive issues of social isolation and loneliness, but also in how they deal with these problems.
  3. Strategies older migrants themselves deploy must be supported.

For more information and a copy of the paper please contact Merryn: m.gott@auckland.ac.nz

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