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Muslim Elderly Care, Isolation, Social Support and Health

2020-05-06T16:37:11-06:00 May 6th, 2020|Feature, Samina Sana|

As-salamu alaikem wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh dear readers,

While hoping that almost everyone reading this is safe at home and well or healing, and also being mindful that Ramadan 2020 is here alhamdulillah (Ramadan Mubarak!), I would like to shine some light on the wellbeing of the elderly in our lives and the elderly amongst us (working or retired) in our society. However, I wish to mention right away that I cannot and will not try to speak on behalf of our elderly for each and every Muslim elder has their own voices that we must all empower more often and truly reflect on always.

“The truth is like poetry, and most people hate poetry.” – Author Unknown 

“Now, we all have a great need for acceptance. But you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own. Even though others may think them odd or unpopular. Even though the herd may go, “that’s baaaad”. Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference.’ “ – Dead Poets Society (1989).

My hope is that this writing will be read by family members, loved ones and caregivers of the elderly as well as some of the elderly in our Muslim community as reassurance that you’re not alone in your struggles, in shaa Allah. Perhaps reading this will spark a stronger willingness amongst some fellow Muslim Edmontonians to better understand, acknowledge and meet our elderly’s needs, to improve the ways in which we show respect to our elderly, to refrain from ever viewing our elderly as a burden and to protect our elderly from continuing on with the habit of sacrificing themselves for the sake of others. By mentioning meeting the needs of our elderly, I’m alluding the most to prioritizing and better supporting our elders with various aspects of their daily life (i.e. the quest to maintain their dignity at all times and remain as self-sufficient and healthy as possible while ageing, the wish to maintain and strengthen their Islamic faith and spirituality, etc); not limited to material and hygienic resources although those are very essential. While some may believe that monetary support and resources is all that elderly really need, the good health of our Muslim elderly also requires spiritual revival and maintenance, community, inclusion, belonging, respect, consideration, commitment, love and support.

“My mercy encompasses all things” – Quran 7:156 

“When you die, people won’t remember your tweets or your statuses. They will remember what you actually did for them and how you made them feel. True service is in the work you do on the ground and with people in real life starting with your family. Writing can’t replace that” – Shaykh Omar Suleiman

Additionally, I hope that this writing will (in shaa Allah) encourage you dear readers to take signs of elderly abuse and neglect seriously and to take appropriate action to stop the harm that some elderly may at times be silently or unknowingly enduring and coping with (whether it’s being inflicted on them by a fellow elderly, their own family or extended family, their caregiver (if they have one), their nursing home provider (if they have one), healthcare professionals or sometimes by complete strangers). Just like any other religious community in our city, our Muslim community is not immune to elderly abuse, deprivation and neglect, so blame-shifting and for us to say that elderly abuse is just a “western” or “ethnicity-specific” problem (i.e. not something to happen to your people) isn’t fair. 

“It’s easy to judge. It’s more difficult to understand. Understanding requires compassion, patience, and a willingness to believe that good hearts sometimes choose poor methods. Through judging, we separate. Through understanding, we grow.” — Doe Zantamata

Moreover, it is a very cruel form of oppression (Allah swt is always watching) to overlook, deny, gaslight or downplay that an elderly loved one of yours (or others) is hurting emotionally, psychologically, physically, financially, spiritually, etc because of the actions (direct, indirect or unknowingly; lowkey or highkey) of an abuser, whoever that may be. Regardless of the abuser’s age, social status, reputation or prestige, the abuser should be pulled aside, spoken to away from the vicinity of the abused, preferably held accountable and sternly prevented from harming your elderly again, no buts and ifs (albeit in as safe of a manner as possible). The abused elderly may sometimes deny the abuse is happening out of fear of repercussions from the abuser (i.e. due to bribing, blackmail, coercion: death threats, abandonment threats, etc from the abuser), even if visible evidence and the proof are present. Therefore, I wish to encourage you to take any sign of abuse on your elderly seriously and any confession by your elderly that they are being abused seriously. An abuse victim speaking up about the abuse they have experienced or are experiencing isn’t easy but it’s the best way for the abused to recover and feel at least some relief from psychological distress. Listen to your heart and advocate for the safety of your elderly at the very least. It’s always better to clarify; it’s better to be safe than sorry. Please also consider the following Hadith in mind: 

“Jibreel came to me and said: O Muhammad, live as long as you want, for you will die. Love whomever you want, for you will leave [them]. Do whatever you want for you will be required for it. Remember that the believer’s honour is [their] praying at night, and [their] pride is [them] being independent of people.” – Prophet Muhammad ﷺ Source: Sahih al-Jaami

We must not take our elderly for granted and instead we must take time to remind our elderly that they are not forgotten; that they are unforgettable human beings who hold intrinsic value in our hearts regardless of the good and/or bad memories we have with them.  Of course, not all the elderly we love are on good terms with us or unfortunately remember us. For elderly loved ones that we may not be speaking to or have been distanced from due to fate/naseeb, we have the blessing of at least making silent duaa to Allah (through passing thought or in sujood) that He protects and looks out for our elderly (and the elderly of those around us). We can make dua’a that our elderly are blessed by our Almighty with resilience and strong faith (Imaan) and spiritual health during these unpredictable times, subhanAllah. 

 

“No matter what, 

Love everyone and reply to all with respect.

Love those who humiliate you, 

Love those who reject you, 

Love those who hate you, 

Love those who deny you, 

And pray only the best for them all 

For that will soften and bless your heart 

To receive more and more blessings from Allah swt, the One.

No one can win and end a war peacefully 

With anger, revenge, sarcasm, and cynicism. 

But it can be done 

With egoless Love 

With the Will of Allah swt, 

The Most and All-Merciful. “

 – Author Unknown

There are also elderly of all ages amongst us in our Muslim community or outside of it who feel forgotten by their younger family members; who may feel their family doesn’t have time for them. And with this understandable inclination for our elderly to feel forgotten or invisible, some of our elderly may also be quietly (and sometimes, stubbornly with pride) grappling with and surviving daily loneliness unbeknownst to us. Other elders of ours may be coping by pushing people around them away. It’s not easy trying to pinpoint how to support our elderly but we can start somewhere. You may know of subtle ways of checking in on your elderly’s well-being, such as searching up their social media (if they have it and are active on it) and reading their most recent posts. And driving by their home, just in case their outside gardening etc, to see how they’re doing physically. You can also encourage others around your elderly to keep an eye out for him or her. Showing care doesn’t always have to be directly known. Instead of toxic positivity and avoidant behaviour, let’s try to gift our elderly with actualized emotional acceptance and soft love. Such subtle acts of care could make all the difference.

“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.” — Hafiz of Shiraz

Given that our elders may not often vocalize when they are struggling, there are some visual and behavioural signs you could look out for that can serve as red flags for you (to do something to alleviate their pain). The stress of any kind (trauma, grief, abuse, harassment, bullying, self-isolation, deprivation,  loneliness, worry, etc) and for however long or brief of duration does have the ability to impact our elderly’s emotional wellbeing. When an elderly becomes or is psychologically distressed, you may notice physical changes: unkempt eyebrows or nails, unbrushed hair even if it is washed well or “greasy hair”, tired eyes perhaps pink in nature from lack of sleep, extraordinary exhaustion, fatigue, strained voice, compulsive behaviours and so on. When you notice such signs or sudden changes in the behaviour of your elder, please intervene. An intervention will very likely involve consulting with a healthcare professional or team for their expert advice and support, but it may be best to do so subtly and without asserting assumptions. If the intervention is too sudden or lacks discretion, your elderly loved one may rightfully feel as though you are criticizing or blaming them for reacting to life’s stresses in the way that they are or worse, that you’re emotionally gaslighting them. 

 

Speaking to your elderly about their psychological health may be risky and difficult. But, as mentioned, one needs to start somewhere with supporting their elderly. Allah has given our elderly (loved ones especially) Islamic rights over us and if we try our best to fulfill these Islamic rights they have, we may unknowingly receive ajr from Allah swt. We also have a duty as Muslims to be respectful to the elderly who aren’t our loved ones, even if they aren’t always pleasant to talk to. There are Muslim elderly we know of or run into but aren’t related to, who may be upset all time, or unusually angry and grieve stricken. Such elders may be best to keep a distance from but you can find ways to support them indirectly. If the elder is a danger to themselves or others, then appropriate steps will likely need to be taken for necessary professional interventions to be implemented to safeguard everyone.

 

For elders dear to your heart, it may be helpful to converse with and truly listen to your elderly first. After you’ve listened to them entirely, you could then let them know that you can tell something is wrong, that you love them, that you don’t want anything bad to happen to them and that you want to make sure they are safe and healthy. Then, you could maybe encourage your elderly to book a consultation with an emotional health professional (psychologist, therapist, counsellor, coach, Imam, etc) (of your elderly’s choosing) and then accompany them to the consultation if it’s in-person or sits nearby if it’s by phone, as moral support. These are suggestions for you to consider, not assertions. Some of these suggestions on ways to intervene for the sake of your elder’s emotional health may not work at all with your elderly but ultimately it’s about researching into and trying different strategies for positively influencing their behaviours and mindset. I lean more towards the use of the term ‘emotional health’ when referring to the health of one’s brain because there is a longstanding stigma and commercialization of ‘mental health’ both in our greater society and in our Muslim community. 

 

Moreover, when looking for the right support for your elderly loved one on their behalf, especially community support and Islamic counselling services for Muslims, it may also be worth considering whether the service locally available fits your elderly’s needs (i.e. their mindset, values, culture, personality, etc) and also how your elderly perceives the health of their mind in advance (either in English or in your elderly’s original language). It’s also important to consider various possible viewpoints our elders may have. Some elderly are traditional, secular or a combination of both, in mindset so how any one of our Muslim elderly responds to such a support suggestion will vary. Some of our elderly may push back on this suggestion and express how they therapy as a sham; as a ‘modern’ western invention for people born here and as a waste of time. It’s important not to dismiss their views as irrelevant, but instead to let your elderly know somehow that you see them, that you hear them regarding their ways, that your heart is telling you they are in distress and that you support them (whether in person or afar by duaa).

 

Realistically though, whether and not your elderly loved one accepts or sees such support as helpful is their choice; not yours to dictate and make for them without their consent. Some of our elderly may view your encouragement as you wanting to ‘change’ and modernize them and that you don’t think they’re good enough as they are, and as such may start avoiding you. It’s important that your elderly know you’re on their side, not against them and their wellbeing and that you’re not trying to transfer your obligation to care for them to someone else. No one really wants to feel like a burden, likely not even you. It’s also important not to assume you’re more intelligent (and better informed) or more resilient than your elder just because they were educated in the east and/or speak English with an accent (if they do). How well or not one speaks English has no correlation with their intelligence. Some elderly may villainize you as the shaytan in human form (jokingly or very much seriously) for wanting them to confide in someone outside of family which may go against their values and way of life (if not yours). It’s important (worth the effort) to respect (not invalidate) your elderly’s emotions and views even if you don’t agree with them, and to not give up in trying to let them know that they can reach out and talk to you whenever they want; that they will be heard and unconditionally loved. 

 

It may also be helpful to acknowledge that inter-generational differences in worldviews do exist and that such differences need to be worked through and not ignored to the point of direct conflict. What you view as being helpful may come across as disrespect to your elderly loved one and vice versa. This is where putting aside pride, by both parties, helps. Life is too short to stubbornly refuse to mend the bond with each other. With regards to the dilemma of what is deemed disrespectful, some elderly may confuse your suggestion of therapy with a psychologist with the field of psychiatry and assume you want them to go on ‘medication for crazy people’ and ‘be placed in a mental hospital’ given such painful stereotypes do exist, and such an assumption not clarified can lead to your elderly hurting more than they may be already. It’s important to distinguish the therapy from psychiatry for your elderly’s sake and to reassure (not mock) your elderly for the uncertainty they may be feeling. Some elderly may also worry that seeing a therapist may jeopardize their citizenship status (especially more recent immigrants) and that they’ll lose access to seeing their family (grandchildren, etc). It’s important that you (as their family, caretaker, etc) remain emotionally aware and to keep your heart soft and impartial to their sensitivities. Some elderly may misinterpret your wish to help them find (non-family) certified psychological support as you wanting to push them away from Islam; they may view therapy as incompatible with Islam for whatever reason. What may seem as illogical and irrational worry to you may be a true stippling (and very real) fear for them. Please remember that such fears that they may share with you, directly or indirectly, should remain Amanah (between you two only etc) and should never undermine your respect for their intellect and existence.

 

Open communication helps clear up misunderstandings between us and our elderly, and it takes effort from both sides to facilitate such healthy dialogue and listening. It’s sometimes very necessary to try to envision ourselves in our elders shoes. We all need to sometimes seek some third-party (confidential) guidance to supplement our Imaan (faith in Allah). Some elderly may doubt how speaking about your emotions helps, but it’s worth suggesting that they give it a try because maybe they’ll find it’s exactly what they need to feel better but if they don’t like it, they can always stop going. Some elderly may worry about what people will think if they find out that the elder is seeing a counsellor and is in a therapeutic support group. It’s worth the effort to clarify with your elderly that this sort of check-in on how they’re managing their emotions and generally are doing emotionally is not a punishment, criticism, insult, subordination or disrespect of any sort towards them. It’s worth the effort and time to openly express your good intention (niyyah) to your elders. It’s important to double-check that your elderly aren’t feeling dehumanized, struggling with waking up in the mornings, struggling to fall asleep at night, struggling to eat breakfast and regular meals throughout the day, struggling to pray, etc. Instead of assuming, it’s important to ask; to question and to (at the very least) make duaa that the daily life of your elderly improves, Allah willing. 

On another note, its worth stressing that for many in our Muslim community (especially older generations), ‘mental health’ is often cruelly and incorrectly associated with the word ‘crazy’ which may seem illogical because we all have a mental existence that sometimes fluctuates and even deteriorates in health regardless of age. But these generational differences in how the older members of our community view mental health isn’t ‘backwardness’ and any of that colonialist and orientalist nonsense, but rather just a reflection of how all of society collectively thought and behaved (both here in the west and in the east) when they were younger. In any case, the stigma of ‘an elderly using mental health services’ in our Muslim community may have a stronger negative impact on our elderly’s self-esteem, pride and belonging in their social groups than the traumas that encouraged them or you (with their consent) to look into consulting with a counsellor, therapist or psychologist for healthier daily coping strategies and habit-building for them. We have to work together as a community, not just independently, to support and better the lives of our elders. Support for our Muslim elderly (loved one or others) that isn’t being fulfilled by their existing family for whatever reason should be actively offered to our elderly by our Muslim community. Our Muslim elderly shouldn’t have to struggle, seek and fight for support or feel very hesitant to approach their nearby masjid for some spiritual solidarity and revival of faith. Instead, support (from our collective Edmonton Muslim community, from our governments, etc) should be actively seeking and welcoming our Muslim elderly. Ideally and also reasonably, in accordance with our Islamic values outlined in our Quran, no elderly in our city (long time resident, newcomer, visitor) who identifies as Muslim (regardless of the level of piety, interpretation of Islam, etc) should ever be turned away from being welcomed, re-welcolmed, accepted and supported by our Muslim community. 

On a closing note, we need to be mindful that compassion and actualized confidentiality matters for our elderly. The health and wellbeing of our elderly matters. Empowering our elderly by speaking the truth and reminding them they are strong people who have survived, accomplished, sacrificed, overcame many painful tests and tribulations of life does help our elderly overcome hopelessness and anguish of all sorts. Difficult conversations (i.e. facilitated by a trained and trusted Islamic counsellor, trusted and legitimate Islamic leader of faith, etc) exploring your elderly’s feelings (i.e. pains, worries, fears, sources of pride, sources of discontent, etc) are often necessary for the resolution of conflict and positive behavioural change, in both the life of our elderly and in our lives as well. Let’s remember that support-seeking (an elder of ours confiding and sharing their troubles with us) is not them ‘complaining’ and ‘seeking attention’ (and not a means for their vulnerability to be preyed on and used against them), but rather them wanting to connect with us on a deeper level beyond small talk; them wanting us to witness, believe in and lovingly support how they resolve their own hardships, destructive habits and heartaches through the will of Allah (swt). Asking for help isn’t age-specific and it isn‘t an inferior weakness but rather very much a courageous strength that requires overcoming one’s ego. We all sometimes need to gather the guts (and push aside our pride) to ask for help and/or push aside our insecurities to offer to help those around us for the sake of Allah (swt). Simply acknowledging and listening to our elderly (silently listening to understand not just to respond), teaching ourselves how to speak in their love language and acting on promises made to our elderly (by us or others) can sometimes be all the support that is needed and wanted. We all as human beings tend to make time for what we value. We need to ensure our elderly are always aware that their value will never diminish with age and that, as is encouraged in Islam, the unconditional love that some of us have for our elders does transcend many disagreements in life choices, isn’t affected by the distance of any kind and extends infinitely past the realm of this dunya into the next. In all the interactions we have with our elderly, we should all try to remain mindful of our Lord and keep in mind that we will all answer to Him on the day of judgement.

 

“Allah (swt) is the close and intimate friend of the believers” Quran 3:68


“We have all hurt someone tremendously, whether by intent or accident… It is an intrinsic human trait, and a deep responsibility, I think, to be an organ and a blade. But, learning to forgive ourselves and others because we have not chosen wisely is what makes us most human. We make horrible mistakes. It’s how we learn. We breathe love. It’s how we learn. And it is inevitable.”  – Nayyirah Waheed

“I believe that the greatest gift you can give your family and the world is a healthy you.” – Author Unknown”

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