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Senior women’s wellbeing

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A new study titled ‘MAHILA’ reveals worrying results

A much-needed study on acculturation and the psychosocial impact of migration on the physical and mental wellbeing of Indian women over the age of 50 now living in Australia, has highlighted the urgent need to address a shortfall in culturally sensitive support services.
Tabled recently, the report was commissioned in 2013 by RAIN (Resourceful Australian Indian Network) in collaboration with The Centre for Research in Nursing and Health, Multicultural Health Service and Sutherland Hospital Diversity Health, and is aptly titled MAHILA (Measuring Acculturation and Psychological Health of Senior Indian Women Living in Australia). RAIN’s Sudha Natarajan, Dr Cathy O’Callaghan, Prof Ritin Fernandes, Dr Gunu Naker, Patty Lukas and Dr Saroja Srinivasan have collated the study.
It follows other previous informal surveys which highlighted several issues of concern for seniors who migrated into a new culture later on in life.
According to the report, the levels of acculturation and life satisfaction directly impact the physical and mental wellbeing of an individual. Consequently, women with low functional integration tend to exhibit higher obesity levels.
Identifying social isolation as one of the biggest factors affecting culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background individuals – due to disruption of traditional networks and lack of logistical support – the report indicates impaired cognitive and immune functions as well as a surge in inflammation in vulnerable individuals. Its impact could be considerable on chronic conditions such as blood pressure, arthritis and diabetes, all of which are present quite significantly in the Indian population.

“By finding and analysing the issues related to the physical and psychological wellbeing of the elderly women of Indian background, MAHILA aims to develop culturally sensitive strategies that facilitate social inclusion, encourage seniors to enjoy an active ageing process, motivate them to accept the support provided and eventually improve their self-confidence and sense of belonging,” clinical psychologist Dr Saroja Srinivasan told Indian Link.

“Evidence-based intervention is vital to be successful in the present climate of service provision. Data from this study will be a starting point for further studies in this area as well as provide a basis for soliciting grants,” she explained.
The report is particularly significant as Australia has a culturally diverse population from over 200 countries, with the intake from India and China constituting a large chunk of net overseas migration or NOM. This intake has doubled since the last census. The increase in the ageing population in Australia is also reflected in the Indian sub continent numbers as more parents come to live with their children.
The need for education about available community services is vital if we are to encourage acculturation as well as foster their wellbeing. Service providers are in need of such ethno-specific information to tailor their services appropriately, Dr Srinivasan added.
Using a quantitative research design, incorporating standardised instruments for measuring family responsibility, acculturation and depression, MAHILA examined the physical and psychological health of senior Indian women predominantly living in the St George and Sutherland regions in Sydney.
Based on 203 surveys, the women had concerns in relation to being overweight, high blood pressure, arthritis, depression and anxiety. There was also a high use of medication to control blood pressure and provide pain relief. Factors relating to higher levels of depression included: not being in paid employment, not living with a partner, having lived in Australia under 15 years, lacking English skills, having greater family expectations, having high blood pressure and experiencing acculturative stress. The connection between these factors and depression clearly highlights the impact of recent migration on mental health. The link between depression and experiencing acculturative stress was specifically related to discrimination, threat to ethnic identity, homesickness and language barriers.
With many Indians aspiring to retain their strong cultural identity and ethnic heritage, acculturation poses a challenge to migrants as they try to fit into their adopted homeland, RAIN’s Sudha Natarajan told Indian Link. Increased family responsibility coupled with the feelings of isolation and insecurity pose considerable stress, often leading to anxiety and depression, she added.
To supplement the findings in this report, an educational DVD Making New Lives: Wellbeing of Senior Women of Indian Backgrounds in Sydney has also been produced. The DVD aims to raise awareness among community workers of the physical and mental health issues faced by Indian seniors. Evidence from the project will be utilised to inform service providers of the needs of the community and initiate further measures to develop meaningful and sustainable relationships between them.
An off shoot of the MAHILA survey report is the recent grant approval to RAIN to promote community development through a community kitchen project.
RAIN is also planning an awareness event on chronic illnesses in October in Hurstville.

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