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. Her home was just a short drive away and she maintained a strong presence in ours. 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. Ayeeyo Barliin 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—in a time when one could still travel—she brought us all back prayer gowns with lace and jewel detailing. After stopping by my cousin’s home to deliver her gifts, she came to ours in Etobicoke, joking that she’d saved my sisters and me the nicest ones.
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 has been falling apart, acting more like a collection of warehouses than places for the older members of our society to call home.
As Covid-19 forces us to re-examine so much of how we live, there is something to be learned from the way 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, one of my cousins stayed behind. Ayeeyo Barliin raised him in Somalia until he was able to join his mother here in Canada. And once her whole family was reunited in Toronto, Ayeeyo Barliin continued to play an engaged role in her grandchildren’s lives.
In our culture, raising children and other socially productive acts are not considered individual or private tasks, as they are often understood to be in this country. Who counts as “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 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 this valuable work, both paid and unpaid.
Immigrant communities fundamentally challenge the idea of the “nuclear family” in other ways, too. Multigenerational households, as the census calls them, represented the fastest growing type of household in Canada between 2001 and 2016. This period saw a 37.5 percent increase in homes with at least three generations of the same family sharing space. The jump is largely attributed to the number of immigrant and Indigenous families that live with at least one grandparent.
Over the course of the pandemic, many other families have started moving in together. This trend has often been presented as a new phenomenon, and for some, it may be so. But that framing erases the experiences of communities that have built their lives this way for quite some time. And this erasure has consequences.
At the start of the school year, parents in Toronto’s middle- and low-income neighbourhoods were warier of in-person school. So many immigrant families in the city are built and function like the one I am a part of, and middle- and low-income neighbourhoods have larger shares of multigenerational households. That means people like my Ayeeyo Barliin are more likely to live with their grandchildren, who risk being exposed to the virus at school and bringing it home. But this reality hasn’t factored into policy decisions during the pandemic.
When I hear stories about how my parents were raised, and who raised them, I realize how much they mirror the childhood my parents created for me and my siblings. My mother’s childhood was one of adventure and constant movement. “We would eat breakfast atone person’s house, lunch at another’s, and everyone would sleepover at mine,” she says. “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. The older Furqan passed away in 1996, but her role as primary caregiver to her grandchildren has been passed down.
The immigrant conception of kinship and the “traditional family” continues. And none 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.
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 has 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."
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Local.
Furqan Mohamed is a writer from Toronto. Her work has appeared in publications such as Feels Zine, Mimp magazine and Room magazine. She is a former journalism fellow at the Local and an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto.