For as long as I can remember, the elders in my life have always been present and involved. As a child, whenever I came home from school I’d find my living room packed with older folks, some related to me, others I called “grandma” or “grandpa” out of respect. Men with grey hair peeking out of their kufis would be seated next to women wrapped in colourful scarves matched with long dresses that touched the living room floor. “Come say salaam!” my parents would say. The elders never got up from their seats. I would go to them, bending down to meet their wrinkled hands covered in rings. They would squeeze my face, ask me questions about school, or congratulate me on how tall I had gotten.
When the tea, cookies, and discussions of Somali politics were finished, the elders would leave and my sisters and I would come back downstairs to find my Ayeeyo sitting in her spot in the living room. Ayeeyo is the Somali word for grandmother. Ayeeyo Barliin is my father’s mother, and she and my grandfather (Awoowe) are two of the elders that have been in my life the longest. She cooked, cleaned, did our hair, and sat in the front row at my eighth-grade graduation. A stern and deeply religious woman, she was also responsible for keeping the young, Canadian-born kids in the family connected to our roots. On her last trip to the Middle East (back when one could still travel) she brought us all prayer gowns with lace and jewel detailing. After making the rounds to my cousin’s home to deliver her gifts, she came to ours, joking that she’d saved my sisters and me the nicest ones.
Ayeeyo Barliin wasn’t the only older person in our lives. My Ayeeyo Qabuul, my maternal grandmother, was a more reserved person, but even in her shyness, I understood that what happened in the home centred around her. Ayeeyo Qabuul’s sister, Mama Hasna, lived with us when I was a little girl. At bedtime, she would wait on the edge of my bed with lotions and oils warmed up by her hands. She was a guardian, friend and co-conspirator all in one—someone who waited outside for the ice-cream truck for me, like a soldier on watch.
Now, for their own safety, Ayeeyo Barliin and the “grandmas” and “grandpas” that frequented my living room are isolated in their homes. I miss them, and their absence has made me more aware of the contrast between my family’s understanding of age and the way we often think of the elderly here in the west.
My mother has lineage from Yemen, but was born and raised in Somalia, like my father. In both Arab and East African traditions, age is something to be celebrated and heralded. The elders I grew up with were responsible for taking care of children, passing down lessons and advice. The older you are, the more seniority, expertise, and wisdom you have—the more needed you are in a community.
In the western imagination, growing old signals the end of something. To age means to wind down, to retreat from life. During the pandemic, this attitude towards aging has been exposed as unsustainable. We’ve seen people dismiss COVID-19 as something that “only” affects the elderly; our long-term care system is falling apart as we speak, acting more like warehouses than places for older members of society to call home. At a time when COVID-19 has forced us to re-examine so much of how we live, there is something to be learned from the way so many immigrant families treat the idea of age and the importance of including elders in everyday life.
Changing our collective understanding of what it means to get older means changing what it means to age “successfully.” The classic tale of a fulfilled life is to work, settle down, have 2.5 kids, and then retire to a life of leisure. But for many families, including mine, the “Canadian dream” is not so linear. And the idea that one reaches a point in their life where they are “finished” working is not universal either. When my father brought his sister and her children over from Somalia, Ayeeyo Barliin raised my cousin until he could join his mother here in Canada. But her role in child-rearing didn’t stop when her family was reunited, as she proceeded to be an engaged part of her grandchildren’s lives. The idea that aging leads to an all-around decrease in one’s ability to contribute to society is challenged over and over by elders who continue to do valuable work, both paid and unpaid.
Many immigrant communities also fundamentally challenge the idea of the “nuclear family.” Multigenerational families, as the census calls them, have grown over the years. The 2016 census showed an increase in homes with at least three generations of the same family sharing space.
When I hear stories about how my parents were raised, and who raised them, I realize how much they mirror the childhood my parents attempted to create for me and my siblings. My mother’s childhood was one of adventure and constant movement. “We would eat breakfast at one person’s house, lunch at another’s, and everyone would sleepover at mine,” she says when I ask her what growing up was like. “We shared grandmas, grandpas. Kids are everyone’s responsibility.”
From the age of four, my father was raised by his grandmother, Furqan, the woman I was named after. She was responsible for dropping him off at nursery school, for his religious and cultural education, for cooking his meals. “She was my roommate,” my father says, describing their closeness.
When they came to Canada, my parents and immigrants like them brought over their cultural traditions and ways of life. Their understanding of kinship, and what a “traditional family” looks like, necessitated the presence of elders in multigenerational homes who challenge the stereotypes around growing old.
The stories my mother and father share about their childhood tell me so much about the way they understand family. Raising children, and other socially productive acts are not individual or private tasks, as they are often understood to be in this country. Who is considered “immediate family,” and thus who is ultimately capable and responsible for work like child-rearing and housekeeping, is different from the traditional western conception.
The older Furqan passed away in 1996 but her role—as primary caregiver to her grandchildren—has been passed down, with my Ayeeyo playing that part in the lives of her grandchildren. The immigrant conception of the “traditional family” continues. And neither of these women or any of the older women who helped raise me slowed down as they aged. Instead, they stepped into their new roles as pillars of their households.
The idea of the “nuclear family” has shifted for all of us during COVID-19, depending on who we are quarantining with and who it is safe to be around. This current health crisis has made it so I cannot be with my grandparents the way I usually would be. Recipe sharing and lectures on religion that would take place in their kitchen or our living room are now transmitted through the phone.
At the start of the school year, parents in middle- and low-income neighbourhoods were warier of in-person school. So many immigrant families in this city are built and function like the one I am a part of, as middle- and low-income neighbourhoods have larger shares of multigenerational households. This means people like my Ayeeyo Barliin are more likely to live with their grandchildren, who are still attending school right now and risk being exposed to the virus and bringing it home.
The ongoing pandemic has proven more than once that what is “normal” can change quickly. Quarantining, masks, and standing six feet apart in public spaces have all taken some getting used to, and the fact that my house feels a little more empty than normal will as well. COVID-19 has revealed there is a lot to reconsider about how we relate to each other. Family is a social institution, and like any social institution, its arrangements impact us all.
Current circumstances have forced us to examine how our cities are shaped and governed. Dealing with questions around infrastructure and long-term care homes will require a more nuanced outlook on ageing and how we build communities with our elders in mind. Attempting to find answers to these issues raises so many questions. What does it mean to age “the right way?” What does it mean to fully appreciate the roles older people play in our communities? How can we do a better job of honouring elders, and their contributions to our lives, especially when we can’t be around them?
If Ayeeyo Barliin were able to be here with me, in her usual spot on my gold and brown living room couch, she’d beckon me to her side and say, “Aamus, taas way ka badan tahay madaxaaga.”
“Hush, now. That is too much for your head alone.”