The link between social connectedness and healthy aging

Photos and stories from immigrant Muslim women show what’s needed to age gracefully in a new country

“This is a picture of my village in Lebanon…this land was all my parents’…many memories stay with you from your childhood in the village, where we grew up.” [participant in Women-CONNECT Study project]

Photo: Women-CONNECT Study

To age well, people need to stay socially connected. But that can be difficult for some people, such as older Muslim women who have immigrated to Canada. Jordana Salma, assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, is exploring the challenges Muslim women face and also the strengths they draw on to stay connected and healthy as they grow older in a place far away from home.

How a strong social life improves well-being

Salma grew up in West Africa and Lebanon, surrounded by many strong Muslim women. Yet when she moved to Canada, she saw Muslim women often portrayed as victims. She sensed this might be due to a lack of social connections—an issue that became increasingly clear when she worked as a registered nurse, helping Muslim women recover from strokes. While Salma initially focused on adherence to medication routines, through conversations with her patients, she soon realized that’s just one factor to staying healthy.

“Good food and good connections are important—we have been doing girls get-togethers for 20-30 years.” [participant in Women-CONNECT Study project]

Photo: Women-CONNECT Study

“They spoke about being connected and being included, and what it meant for their health to not be included,” says Salma. “Women who were less socially connected were not as able to cope with their medical situations, while those with stronger connections had better health outcomes.”

Giving older Muslim women a voice

To further explore this issue, Salma is using a SSHRC Insight Grant to conduct a “photovoice” project, asking older Muslim women in Edmonton to participate in interviews and share as many as 20 images that speak to the social connections in their lives. (Her co-applicant, Karen Kobayashi, sadly passed away in May as the project was unfolding; her mentorship and guidance will be greatly missed.)

For some women, social connections are focused on the present: many shared pictures of children and grandchildren, or family vacations. For others, it’s about maintaining connections to the past: Salma has seen photos of parents and grandparents, and special places in participants’ homelands.

Although the project is ongoing, two findings have emerged. First is the importance of digital literacy, which is crucial to helping older Muslim women in Canada use tools such as WhatsApp to stay connected to friends and relatives in other parts of the world. Second is the importance of seeking new connections as personal situations change. For example, one woman who lost her husband began volunteering at her mosque—and said the social connections she made there greatly improved her physical and mental health.

Al Rashid Mosque was dedicated in 1938, in Edmonton, and was Canada’s first mosque and one of the first in North America. Since then, the mosque has been a place of cultural connections for the Lebanese Muslim community in Edmonton.

Photo: Women-CONNECT Study

Salma had interviewed about 35 women by mid-2022 and hopes to get 50 participants in total. She is supported by an advisory group of 12 Muslim women from diverse backgrounds, as well as six Muslim women undergraduate students who help with research and data analysis.

“When Muslim communities see people they can identify with doing research, it enhances credibility and trust that they will be represented in a just way and not be re-stereotyped,” she says.

Many of the early interviews were conducted online, but with the pandemic easing, Salma is now holding in-person group sessions that give participants a chance to share stories with each other and make new connections.

Sharing stories with the world

The stories shared through the project will eventually be encapsulated in an online exhibit and possibly a physical exhibit that could travel to mosques or universities, allowing Muslim communities to see their narratives on aging reflected in public spaces. With Muslim women underrepresented in media, many of the participants have told Salma they are eager to share their photos with the world, without having their faces blurred or details anonymized.

Salma hopes the project will highlight the need to develop policies on aging with immigrants in mind, as most are designed to help people born in Canada age gracefully in the place they’ve called home their entire lives.

“Low- and middle-income countries have the fastest aging populations in the world, so we need more research that includes diverse perspectives on what it means to grow old,” she says. “This research allows us to explore those perspectives and better answer how we can support the aging process for all Canadians.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Jordana Salma’s work, visit the Council of Muslims on Aging Gracefully website.