My experience as a graduate student with the Sheridan Center for Elder Research. Putting research into practice; insights gained from the ‘aging in a foreign land’ project.
I knew coming into my practicum with the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research that I was looking for something new, a new experience in the field of gerontology, even though I had previously been working with older adults in the social service field for 15 years. My timing was lucky in that I had the opportunity to be involved with a project from start to finish, which I have been told is quite rare for students. The research I was involved in was a project entitled ‘Aging in a Foreign Land’. This project explored the health and community service use and needs of South Asian immigrants aged 65 and over living in the Peel and Halton regions. This particular project was of interest to me personally and professionally as it involved considerable work with ethno-specific cultures. Having spent most of my career in Simcoe County prior to this, my involvement with different cultural groups was hugely lacking, to say the least.
This community research opportunity provided me with the cultural exposure that I have been longing to experience since becoming a social worker. I was able to learn about cultural practices, see cultural dress, taste cultural food, and attend various places of worship. It felt like a truly tangible experience; one that I was able to visually see and feel through involvement and participation in cultural practices and community events. It was comparable to the experience of going on vacation and being accepted into a culture and invited into a family’s home for dinner, where inevitable sharing and learning happen in a reciprocal manner. An open and mutually respected learning opportunity that someone can hope to attain during community work with a culture that is vastly different from their own. I felt entrusted with the type of knowledge that results from hearing very personal stories about family life and how people come together to support a sense of community. I learned how the South-Asian cultural experience of older immigrants could be in direct contrast to that of ‘mainstream’ Canadian society. This was demonstrated by the tension that I could hear within stories that spoke of different notions of family, community, and everyday life/living. These differences I learned, could lead to the experience of social isolation, loneliness, abuse, and intergenerational conflicts amongst family members.
Being new to the field of community research, I had my own assumptions about what working in a research environment might look like. One of those assumptions was that research results could be thought of as being largely disconnected from ‘practice’ or practical issues. This assumption could not be further from the truth in this project. The outcomes from this research were easily connected to practice as they provided an in-depth understanding of cultural groups that are very different from North American culture, and helped inform ethno specific programs and services in the community. I was left with an appreciation of the importance of maintaining a strong sense of cultural connection while aging in Canadian society. The older adults that we encountered during this project consistently expressed connection to culture and community as an indicator of their overall quality of life. This was demonstrated in a theatrical skit that was performed at a community event by older adults who had participated in this research project. These older adults incorporated a major theme that was an outcome of the research project into their performance. It was a powerful grassroots demonstration of the community further communicating the issues that are impacting their community.
Now that the project has come to completion, I am left feeling extremely grateful for this community research experience. Grateful to the staff at the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research for accepting me as a member of their team, and grateful to the South-Asian community that I engaged with during this memorable project. This experience has renewed my passion for community social work, and sparked a new passion in community research that I will bring forward with me as I continue in my career with older adults.