Lead researcher Jordana Salma (right) shares a laugh with one of the study participants helping her get ready for her CBC interview.
After becoming an empty nester, Khazma Assaf found new purpose as a full-time volunteer at Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton.
A quarter of a decade later, the 69-year-old is the matriarch of a club for dozens of older Muslim women who are the focus of a new study that draws on their experiences as a recipe for healthy aging.
The group got off the ground in 2015 when Assaf and co-founder Sahar Swaid went door-to-door with coffee, doughnuts and a pitch for prospective members.
"We explained to them, 'You raised your kids. No, you don't have to raise your grandkids … Now is the time for the ladies to have time for themselves.'"
Seven years on, the Al-Rashid Women's Seniors group still meets every Wednesday — an afternoon of conversation, laughter, fitness, prayer and Middle Eastern treats.
Their ability to maintain social connections and support systems in their communities drew the interest of Jordana Salma, a registered nurse and gerontologist who researches the health and well-being of seniors at the University of Alberta.
Salma switched her focus from acute care to community after hearing the same thing repeatedly from seniors with chronic illness: they were lonely.
In her latest study, Women-Connect, Salma and her team interviewed 41 older Muslim women between August 2020 and July 2022.
"They were volunteering countless hours with other seniors in their community that might be more vulnerable," Salma said in an interview at last Wednesday's meet-up.
Salma said the COVID-19 pandemic was a huge blow because it cut people off from the mosque — their main support system — leading to increased loneliness and isolation.
14 per cent acutely lonely
In the first half of 2022, nearly 14 per cent of women in Canada older than 65 said they always or often felt lonely, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada.
Loneliness is rooted in challenges many aging Canadians identify with including decreased mobility, especially in a winter city like Edmonton, said Salma.
But her study identified additional barriers for Muslim seniors such as a lack of inclusive spaces where people speak their languages, and share common history and belief systems, to connect in meaningful ways.
Salma called for more culturally safe spaces for people "to grow old with a sense of dignity and pride," emphasizing the importance of funding grassroots initiatives.
"Staying active and staying connected is a recipe for healthy aging, and we need to maximize that in our city as much as we can," Salma said.
Nuzhat Khan advocates for changes that help Muslim seniors cultivate happy, meaningful lives. (Submitted by Nuzhat Khan)
Advocating for change to improve the quality of life for Muslim seniors became the focus of Nuzhat Khan's work after watching her happy, outgoing mother-in-law grow miserable in a Toronto long-term care home where both the food and environment were unfamiliar.
The experience inspired Khan to launch the Edmonton-based Council of Muslims on Aging Gracefully, an advocacy group that supports Salma's research.
Last April, the council received a federal grant of $23,780 to help address the social isolation of Muslim seniors who were cut off from grandchildren and other youth during the pandemic.
A pen-pal project connected seniors and youth while classes held in Urdu, English and Arabic helped participants cope with the increasing loss associated with aging such as losing loved ones and independence.
Funding runs out this month.
"I hope that we can find solutions to help seniors lead a meaningful life and contribute to the society the best they can," said Khan. "The problem is the lack of funding."
U of A researcher Huda Temuri said additional resources would go a long way to create culturally safe spaces for seniors in other Muslim communities.
She recruited study participants from Edmonton's Southeast Asian Muslim community, including her grandmother.
"It's a cultural taboo for us to talk about those things," Temuri said. "So it was really refreshing to see her talking about loneliness and how she's managing those kinds of feelings."
Lisa Shankaruk, a spokesperson for Alberta Seniors, Community and Social Services, said the province continued to fund multicultural and anti-racism grants in the 2023 budget, investing $9.8 million that "help communities teach cross-cultural understanding, and how to help foster positive-multiculturalism."