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Feature Profile: Blessing Ojembe

Feature Profile: Blessing Ojembe

Photo of PhD Student Blessing Ojembe

Can you spend a few minutes talking about your dissertation topic and research? 

My dissertation is called “Aging, Black, and Lonely: A Narrative Experience of Black Older Adults in Canada”. My research helped to fill a gap where Black older adults have not been included in loneliness research within Canada. I focused on their experiences with loneliness, how they cope, and what factors contribute to their feeling of loneliness. I also looked at the extent to which they are involved and participate, highlighting the constellating factors that contribute to their lack of social participation. 

I adopted a sandwich method which yielded four papers. The first paper “Understanding Social and Emotional Loneliness about Black Older Adults - A Scoping Review” explored the range of research available on loneliness among Black older adults on a global level. Some major themes that emerged from the review showed that loneliness amongst Black older adults is a factor of poor health, poor socioeconomic status, weak social integration, and weak attachments. The review also revealed the lack of research evidence on this area in Canada, giving rise to the qualitative studies included in my dissertation. 

The remaining three papers adopted a qualitative method with 13 participants who live in Ontario using narrative methodology. The first of these papers which is the second paper in my dissertation and titled “The Narrative Exploration of Loneliness in Black Older Adults Living in Ontario,” focused on understanding the in-depth experience of social and emotional loneliness guided by the social provision framework developed by Robert Weiss. This framework proposes 6 types of social provisions or relational gains that could mitigate or contribute to loneliness. They include social integration, guidance, reliable alliance, opportunity for nurturance, attachment, and reassurance of worth. This paper showed that Black older adults’ experience of loneliness goes beyond these social provisions. As such, part of my research recommendation was expanding and making the theory culturally relevant for racialized people as this wasn’t originally taken into consideration.  

The third paper titled “You’re not Understood, and you are Isolated, a Narrative account of Loneliness by Black Older Adults in Ontario Canada,” discusses different factors that shift the experience of loneliness among Black older adults and how they cope with their experience of loneliness. My research introduces the use of the 3-dimensional space narrative inquiry framework in studying loneliness. Specifically, my research uncovered how Black older adults’ experiences of loneliness is shaped by three elements of time, place, and interaction.  

The final paper titled “A narrative analysis of exclusion from social participation and loneliness among Black older adults in Ontario, Canada,” explores the social participation and underrepresentation of Black older adults in existing programs and services in Ontario, guided by the representational intersectionality framework.  

What are some of your major findings?   

First, Black older adults mentioned the importance of being with people who are reliable, credible, and who can provide help, care, support, intimacy, and security should anything happen to them, as many of the participants are living in Canada alone while their families currently reside in Africa and the Caribbean.   

Second, participants spoke a lot about the sense of belonging, identity, and how the lack of these aspects, can contribute to loneliness. I found that amongst Black older adults, there’s a high experience of loneliness as they don’t feel like Canada is home because of the treatment they’ve received from community members or when job searching. On top of this, they also experience racism, ageism, and exclusion. These intersecting systems of oppression and marginalization only exacerbates their feelings of loneliness. That is why many of them would say, “why do I need to care, let me stay on my own, I don't need to get involved because they don't need me”. Also, Black older adults emphasized the lack of culturally relevant programs and services.  

Another interesting thing that participants mentioned was the shifting color code, where they had to keep changing their identity to suit the dominant culture of whiteness that exists within the Eurocentric society. They also mentioned that they tried to please people outside their community to feel accepted and have a sense of belonging, and this exacerbates their experiences of loneliness.   

When I asked one of the participants about her thoughts about how Black older adults have been excluded in existing services and programs, she said that “we shouldn’t be talking about exclusion because we have never been included from the onset, we have never been made relevant. So why should we be talking about that?” There is an urgent need for programs that specifically address the needs and cultural practices of Black older adults and emphasize the need to factor in diversity, cultural sensitivity and security while designing and developing programs and service for racialized older adults. The only way that this can happen is by bringing Black older adults to the table when decisions are being made. 

I was also interested in how Black older adults cope as they make Canada home and how they build resilience across time. I found that the participants experiences changed depending on how many years the person has lived in Canada, when they arrived, and their immigration status as it determines the services you have access to. For example, for people who moved to Canada with their family 30-50 years ago as an international student, they felt a lot of exclusion, inequities, and disparities in services, but over time, they were able to build resilience, increase their access to services, and adapt. For these people, over time, their experiences of loneliness were drastically reduced, and they are now caring for people who have just arrived in Canada. But for older adults who just recently arrived in Canada, their experience of loneliness is doubled because of the multiple roadblocks that they have to face, including in employment and accessibility. 

Can you believe that the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) only recently started to collect data on race! Currently only about 5% of the data comes from the Black community. There is an urgent need for data that is representative. In October 2022, I attended the Canadian Association of Gerontology Conference (CAG) and asked one of the presenters why the data isn’t representative. He said that because of systemic issues, only a small group of people decided whose voices will be made visible and whose would be invisible. This is why in my research; it was important that I interviewed people from different countries in Africa, the West Indies and Black Canadian-born, as I wanted to have a demographically diverse sampling. It really makes the research much more equitable and representative. 

What inspired you to apply for the MSW program after completing your PhD, and why did you choose York’s School of Social Work? 

I completed my BSW in Nigeria, my master's degree in Gerontology, and my PhD in Social Gerontology, but I always wanted to come back to social work. Many of my family and friends questioned my decision complete an MSW program after my PhD, but I knew that having an MSW will help me to teach gerontology in social work, and I also wanted to be a registered social worker in Canada. Also, during my PhD, I was exposed to different forms of learning and pedagogy which used more of a clinical approach and so I needed a school which focuses on a critical or anti-oppressive lens. I finally made up my mind to complete my MSW at York because one of my professors at McMaster University, where I completed my PhD, told me that York’s social work program is number one if you want to learn from a critical lens! It also helps that York provides a funding package which gives me the opportunity to concentrate on school without having to worry about how to pay the bills. 

How do you see the MSW Program supporting your PhD topic? 

My PhD focuses on anti-oppression, social justice, and representational intersectionality, by using a critical social work lens at York, I felt that this best supports my research. I also wanted to be in a program that furthered my knowledge in these areas. Throughout my thesis, I really focused on social justice, and it was very important for me to emphasize the need for representation of Black older adults and to address their needs. Someone needed to give Black older adults a voice, as it has always been hidden. I felt like York’s critical social work is a fundament tool to further that mission.  

There are not many schools that teach about the aging experiences of Black older adults using race as a lens to teach gerontology. I want to be the person that teaches gerontology, while bringing in race, disempowerment, and marginalization. It's been very exciting seeing the responses that my research is receiving. After presenting my findings at the CAG Conference, I received the longest applause! 

What advice would you give to someone who is considering applying to a PhD program? 

Number one piece of advice is to choose a supervisor that has your interests at heart, as it’s a big factor in the success of your PhD. It is important to find a supervisor who's available and who understands what you are doing. Secondly, choose a topic that will bring you fulfillment and that really interests and excites you. The third piece of advice is that completing a PhD is not your life and it’s important to make time for yourself, your mental health, and your family/friends’, creating balance is very crucial.  

What’s Next for you? 

There are not a lot of people who study and teach gerontology and there is a need for more people to be doing this work. In social work, there’s a temptation to pay more attention to the younger population but we are doing it at the detriment of the older population. They are being ignored neglected, no one is talking about them. My goal is to teach gerontology and increase the curriculum in this area and further progress this research within social work. I would be so glad to be that gerontological social work voice in a Canadian School of Social work.