The Muslim Elderly
By Nadir Khan, PhD
Alta Loma, CA
Advances in public health, particularly in potable, safe drinking water and sanitation have made a huge difference in people’s lives. One of the major changes has been in life expectancy. Even in developing countries, people are living a little longer than before.
The graying of America has become a common and familiar theme. Its impact on economic, political, and social issues is a favorite topic of discussion in electronic and print media. In the economic realm, it is discussed in terms of the work force which drives the economic engine. Politically, it creates another set of problems because most of the elderly are fairly conservative and sometime create problems, for example, by voting against school bonds because of their limited incomes and the fact that their children are grown up and gone.
Social Security and Medicare are sapping resources from other parts of the social agenda and the whole idea of entitlements has created problems for limited financial resources. And it is not an American phenomenon only, most of the industrialized countries are in the same boat.
The Muslim elderly pose another set of issues which might be considered unique to immigrants. The Muslim elderly, broadly speaking, can be divided into two distinct groups: people who came here years ago as students or professionals, received their higher education in this country and for various reasons decided not to return to their native lands.. There was a time in the sixties and early seventies when it was almost impossible to find someone who was not a student or a professional.
There were very few women, because they did not leave their country or families on their own. Young people went home and brought their spouses or married locally, raised their families and are now retired or getting close to it. Their problems are, relatively less complicated. They have well established relationships within their own communities and feel comfortable in their interactions with Americans. Their children were born and brought up here and have become part of the American landscape. They are familiar with social norms, speak the language fluently, and know how to carry out life’s normal activities. Financially they are comfortable and may not be dependant on their children. Some of them were activists and were responsible for establishing our mosques and Islamic schools.
The second group’s situation is a little more complex. After the changes brought about by immigration laws in early 1960’s, the new immigrants included parents of those who had come earlier and people who were skilled and unskilled laborers. .Some of them were not familiar with social norms and did not know the language.
Then there is a subset of individuals whose children have immigrated but the parents are still in their countries of origin. These elderly receive financial support from their overseas residing children, but they essentially are on their own, sometimes lonely and without any social support.
The second group poses a challenge and a dilemma for the Muslim community. These people are completely isolated. Some of them do not know how to use a telephone, or how to drive a car. If they live with their children, who leave early in the morning for their work and are gone most of the day, they have so much time on their hands and absolutely nothing to do. Some of them have become free baby sitters and cooks for their families. But the biggest problem is that they are completely isolated. They go out only when their children can take them out. They are not in touch with people of their own age.
We as a community have been fairly successful in building mosques and schools, but have not been good at building communal and social institutions. May be the time has come for a paradigm shift, to change our priorities and come out with a new set of agenda which is geared more towards addressing and solving communal and social concerns. May be the mosque building phase, with some exceptions, should come to an end. There was a time some of us drove one hundred miles every weekend to take our children to Sunday schools at the Islamic Centers. Now nobody wants to drive more than a few miles to take their children to Sunday schools.
Our communal and social agenda is getting complex and longer. Some local problems are slowly creeping into our social structure. Divorces, drinking, domestic violence are no more strangers in our lives. We need to wake up to these very serious and difficult problems glaring in our faces and begging for some solutions.
Our faith traditions tell us that we need to take care of our parents like they took care of us in our childhood, and that those who do not respect our elders and are not kind to our children are not part of us. But there is, unfortunately, a vast difference between teachings and practice.
Before we can plan for the future, we need to realize the dearth and paucity of data. We truly even do not know the number of Muslims in this country. It is disturbing that national Muslim organizations have not taken any concrete steps to address this significant issue. ISNA did a mosque survey some years ago and another one is in the offing, according to a recent announcement. A grassroots effort needs to be mounted to get this census done. Without reliable data, it is not possible to plan for the future.
The most significant concern for the Muslim elderly is social isolation, which is neither desirable nor healthy. It may lead to depression, poor self-image, a feeling of being a burden on their families. Like any other group of people, the elderly feel comfortable either with their own families or people of their own age. .
Despite our growing numbers, the community is widely scattered. The late Ismail Faruki had suggested creating ghettos like the ones populated by Italians, Polish, and Jewish communities. Clusters of families have moved closer to certain Islamic Centers, mostly for the Islamic education of their children. Large metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York have fairly close knit communities. Our cultural and religious values prevent us from exploring alternative solution to this dilemma. We should start with our mosques, because they are the centers of our communal lives. We should choose certain day(s) when the elderly could get together and socialize. In the beginning these get-togethers should be unstructured so they can become comfortable with each other. We should take their wishes into consideration when organizing programs for them.
Homes for the elderly, at this time, may be a little premature. But we cannot overlook that possibility for the future. There are several models available and with certain modifications to suit our needs, we can adopt them.
For a long time our communal concentration has been on our youth, and rightfully so. But we need to start looking at the other end of the spectrum and start exploring our options. Our national and regional organizations should organize a national level conference, to address these issues openly with empathy, generosity of spirit, kindness and deep understanding.