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South Asian grandparents eight times more likely to live with grandchildren

May 25, 2016

Vancouver Sun | Bikrangit and wife Ranjit, 72, say they appreciate the lower cost of living, shared meals and lively lifestyle that comes with cohabiting with three generations inside the richly furnished, six-bedroom house in Surrey’s Tynehead neighbourhood.

“It’s hard for grandparents to live alone,” Ranjit says through her grandson, Arshvir, who regularly translates his grandparents’ Punjabi into English. “If grandparents get sick, who is going to take care of them?”

The Sikh seniors, who arrived in Metro Vancouver from India in the early 1990s, illustrate new research showing South Asian grandparents are much more likely than most Canadian grandparents to live not only with their children, but with their grandchildren.

South Asian grandparents are eight times as likely to live with their grandchildren as grandparents of some other ethnic groups in Canada, including Japanese and Caucasians, according to Statistics Canada data.

When it comes to other ethnic groups in Canada, South-East Asian (Vietnamese, Malaysian), Chinese and Filipino grandparents are roughly four times as likely to live in three-generation households as are Caucasian and Japanese grandparents.

The 2011 General Household Survey reveals that almost 27 per cent of South Asian grandmothers in Canada live with their children and grandchildren. That compares to only six per cent of Korean-Canadian grandmothers and three per cent of Japanese and Caucasian grandmothers.

South Asian grandparents in Canada are eight times more likely to live with their grandchildren than Japanese or Caucasian grandparents.
South Asian grandparents in Canada are eight times more likely to live with their grandchildren than Japanese or Caucasian grandparents.

Bikrangit and Ranjit have lived under the same multi-generational roof with Arshvir, 22, and his sister, Sukhmit, 21, for more than two decades.

They’ve changed their diapers, cooked their meals and attended their soccer and basketball games. “I used to spank them a lot,” Bikrangit jokes.

The grand house they share in Surrey is decorated with portraits of Sikhism’s main gurus. Bikrangit and Ranjit go to Guru Nanak Sikh Temple many times a week, even though the younger members of the family, including Arshvir’s mother and father, Sukhwinder and Sukh, don’t often attend gurdwara.

Meanwhile, the brother of Sukh, who owns a transportation company, lives just across the street; so he and his family can also spend time with the grandparents. Arshvir says, “We’ve always lived side by side.”

With more than 250,000 South Asians in Metro Vancouver, the Pandhers are among those who appear to have successfully brought to Canada their old-country tradition of multi-generational families living under one roof.

Their story backs up the conventional perception that Asian and immigrant families are more embracing of seniors than are members of the European or home grown cultures that also make up Canada. An earlier Statistics Canada report provided modest support for that belief.

However, the report, titled A Portrait of Seniors in Canada, also found “there were only slight differences between immigrant and non-immigrant seniors regarding the number of family members they felt close to, or the frequency with which they saw members of their families.”

In a StatsCan survey exploring ethnic values, Canadian respondents were asked to rate their sense of belonging to their family. “About 63 per cent of recent immigrant seniors (most of whom were from Asia) rated their sense of belonging to their family as very strong, compared to 58 per cent of long-term immigrants and 55 per cent of non-immigrants,” the report said.

Simon Fraser University-based gerontology specialists, such as Charmaine Spencer, have also challenged the conventional wisdom that significant differences exist in the way seniors are treated in Canada, depending on whether they come from the East or the West.

Spencer has found most extended families in Canada, regardless of ethnicity, care deeply for grandparents, even if they don’t live together.

Farida Bano Ali, who was born in Southeast Asia and spent decades in Britain, said “the extended family is extremely important” to most of Metro Vancouver’s 70,000 Muslims.

The retired psychiatric nurse, whose 89-year-old mother lives with her and her husband, David, said the city’s Muslims, most of whom come from Asia, tend to believe it’s important to share meals with grandparents, care for their medical problems and get them to mosque.

But Ali, who works with a group monitoring elder abuse in the immigrant and Muslim population, also said she’s witnessed Asian-Canadian grandparents being emotionally, financially and physically exploited by their offspring.

Bikrangit Singh Pandher, 76, plays a Punjabi card game with his grandson, far right, almost every evening.
Bikrangit Singh Pandher, 76, plays a Punjabi card game
with his grandson, far right, almost every evening.

In addition to routinely seeing live-in Asian grandparents’ taken advantage of for babysitting, Ali said she’s aware of cases where seniors’ social security cheques are confiscated by their children.

“Most of the grandparents don’t speak English. Some have nowhere to go. Some are controlled by their children,” Ali said.

Despite such negative stories, however, Ali believes in most cases Muslims’ general respect for elders is tremendously positive for all concerned.

Arshvir Pandher echoes the sentiment. He’s greatly appreciated having around his Punjabi grandfather and grandmother, in part because of the delicious Indian food that is often prepared.

Even though Arshvir has heard some extended Punjabi families in Canada have had their problems— “family is family,” he sighs – the university student wouldn’t have wanted to grow up any other way.

When asked how he would like to live when he ages, Arshvir says, “When I’m a grandparent, I’d like to live with my grandchildren. I’d love them a lot and watch them grow up.”

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