Three mornings a week, Abu Sayeed, 64, wakes up in his home in Cyprus Hills in Brooklyn, NY, worrying about the subway. He wonders if he’ll manage get the right train? How long will he have to wait? As he gets ready for his long walk to the station – putting on a cap, a thick sweater, sports shoes – he worries if he’ll make it in time to catch the exercise class he loves so much at the Desi Senior Center in faraway Jamaica, Queens.
His journey begins at the Cypress Hills subway station in Brooklyn where he catches the J train to the Sutphin Boulevard station in Queens. From there he transfers to the E train for Kew Gardens. At Kew Gardens he waits for the F train to Jamaica’s 169th street station.
Three trains and 70 minutes after he first got into the subway, he emerges into the light at Hillside Avenue and walks up the slope to the Desi Senior Center. He’s timed the walk: it takes a further 8 minutes.
Abu Sayeed has to take 3 trains and travel for more than an hour to get to India Home’s Desi Senior Center. Lack of convenient transportation increases the social isolation and decreases the wellbeing of our immigrant seniors.
Refuge from Social Isolation
Abu Sayeed has made this complicated journey, three times a week, ever since the Desi Senior Center opened in 2014. “My three arteries was blocked so I had three bypass operations. But still I came,” he says, proud of his tenacity. “I am coming here since day one. December 15, 2014.” His eyes crinkle under his cap. We are in the office of India Home’s Desi Senior Center in Jamaica. Outside the door, other older adults at the center have finished their lunch of rice and chicken curry are munching on apples for desert. A few pop in now and then to say hello to Sayeed or to ask questions of the staff.
So why, given the time and effort it takes, does he make this journey day after day?
Abu Sayeed doesn’t hesitate. “The friendliness of all the people here is very important to me. It is something that I enjoy every much,” is how Sayeed explains his dedication.
For Sayeed, and others like him, the Desi Senior Center, catering to mostly Bengali muslims and other immigrants from South Asia, is a refuge from social isolation, a problem that more and more elderly face in New York city. Sayeed moved from Bangladesh in 2008 to join his children in the US. His sons are busy, off at work or college, leaving Sayeed and his wife alone at home. In the summer he putters around growing flowers and vegetables in his small garden, but in the winter, there’s nothing to do. “My wife is idle,” he mock-laments. She’s happy to stay home. But he gets bored.
At the Desi Senior Center he meets older adults from his country who share the same language and culture, people with whom he can laugh or talk politics with for a few hours a day. There are other reasons that draw him here: “There is a group exercise session that happens every day that I really like. That is the main reason why I come here. They also serve halal food which, especially for me, is very important.”
Food that is culturally suited, exercise, a friendly face: Sayeed’s needs are simple. Yet the journey to enjoy a few hours of small comforts is difficult.
The burden of transportation costs
Finding easily accessible public transportation is one problem; the high cost of transportation is another. Sayeed, who retired as a manager at a fertilizer plant in Bangladesh, has no work history in the US and thus has no social security income to draw upon. The cost can become a burden: “Every day I am spending $5.50…that is a lot if you don’t have a job.” he says. Selvia Sikder is a case management worker at India Home: “New York City requires that older adults have to be 65+ to get the reduced fare Metrocard. Many of our elders who don’t meet the criteria, even those who are below the poverty line, are spending $5 dollars a day to get to the center.” They can’t access private transportation services because these seniors are often on Medicaid, and these services are not available to those on the Medicaid plan.
There are days when Sayeed simply doesn’t have money and waits for some kind soul to swipe him through the turnstile.
Still, not all elders are as determined or as healthy as Sayeed. “Many elders have to beg for a ride to come to the center. Or wait for family to come and pick up. Some can’t afford even the reduced fare of $1.35. Others live far away from the nearest subway or bus-stop and find it difficult to walk,” Selvia, the case worker, explained.
Fast Growing Elderly Population Needs Better Options
New York City’s large older adult population includes 1.4 million people over the age of 60 and the fastest growing segment of this population are immigrant seniors. The 2013 poverty rate among those age 65 and over was 21.6%. Given these statistics, one would think that NYC would make improving the public transportation system for the elderly a priority. However, the global design and consulting firm Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Mobility index 2017 published in 2017 found that NYC’s public transportation system was ranked 23rd in the world. Funding concerns, long commute times and looming mega projects kept the city out of the top tier.
New York City’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) funds 14 transportation only programs, which provide means of transportation to older and frail adults, according to a concept paper released in 2015. However these programs serve a limited number of community districts. Many community districts in Brooklyn and Queens remain without a ready source that can provide transportation to older adults.
The benefits of older adults being able to use a low-cost, easily accessed public transportation system are well documented. In January 2017, Reuters reported on a UK study that followed 18,000 older adults for more than a decade. Eliminating cost as a barrier to traveling around town was seen as an important way to improve the mental health of older adults by reducing loneliness and lack of social engagement.
By 2040 the older adult population of New York city is set to grow by 31%. Without proper transportation infrastructure that works for the aging, older adults like Abu Sayeed will face increasing social isolation and the physical and mental health issues that come with it. For now, though Abu Sayeed is looking forward to turning 65. “After 1 yr and 4 months I’ll get my half-fare Metro Card.” He grins in anticipation. “Almost there,” he says.
Here are some of the recommendations that AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) urged on Congress in 2012. Many of them could be applied in NYC today.
- Dedicate increased funding for public transportation and the specialized transportation program for older adults and persons with disabilities.
- Include support for operations to help mitigate the high cost of gas and other expenses.
- Strengthen the coordination of public transportation and transportation provided by human services programs, such as agencies that provide transportation for seniors to group meals
- Ensure that older Americans have greater involvement in developing transportation plans to meet their needs.
- Ensure that state departments of transportation retain their authority to use a portion of their highway funds for transit projects and programs.
- Include a Complete Streets policy to ensure that streets and intersections around transit stops are safe and convenient.
Talk on Dementia Care at Asian American Community Development Conference
Dr. Vasundhara Kalasaudi, E.D., India Home gave a talk at the 10th Anniversary Asian Americans for Equality Community Development Conference
“I never thought when I studied to become a geriatric psychiatrist, I would have to diagnose my own father.” Dr. Vasaundhara Kalasapudi said. The sentence was the emotional opening to her presentation at the popular “EqualiTalks” at “Achieving Equality for All” Community Development conference organized by Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE). As one of four speakers voted in by members of the non-profit community, Dr. Kalasapudi spoke about Equality in Dementia Care among South Asian elders. Adopting a culturally sensitive approach, whether it is for congregate meals or creative aging activities such as art classes or writing workshops, helps to ground affected seniors by offering a sense of comfort and familiarity. Dr. Kalasapudi experienced the travails of taking care of her father who suffered from vascular dementia and watched her friends struggle with providing culturally sensitive care for their parents. These experiences, she said, convinced her that Asian dementia patients need to be offered a different set of treatment options than are currently prevalent.
Panelist on Mental Health Needs in Asian American Pacific Islander communities in NYC
On October 24, 2017, the Asian American Federation released their newest report titled Overcoming Challenges to Mental Health Services for Asian New Yorkers. This report is based on a year-long study that included focus groups, interviews, and meetings with approximately 20 Asian nonprofit organizations providing direct or indirect mental health services in New York City. The report, according to the organization’s Press Release highlights the increasing visibility of mental health needs in New York City’s Asian community and provides recommendations for addressing the major challenges in increasing mental health services for the Asian community. Dr. Kalasapudi was part of a panel of leaders heading community based non-profit organizations who were invited on the occasion of the report’s release to talk about mental health needs in their communities. Other panelists included Chhaya Chhoum from Mekong NYC, Dr. Yu-Kang Chen from Hamilton-Madison House, and Linda Lee from Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (KCS). Speaking about her experiences as both a practicing Geriatric Psychiatrist and the Founder and Executive Director of India Home, Dr. Kalasapudi stressed the need for preventative and ongoing mental health services that were culturally appropriate for Asian patients. She talked about the various services that India Home offers such as yoga, wellness talks, South Asian Indian and Bengali congregate meals, celebrations such as Diwali and Eid, as a means to prevent dementia and depression among the South Asian population in New York.
Elders waited patiently at Queens Borough Hall to see the Mayor and air their issues
On 18th July, Mayor Bill de Blasio hosted a City Resource Fair at the Queens Borough Hall in order to help residents understand the various services available to them, and untangle problems incurred by the people of the city. The event was very well organized and different departments like NYC Department of Health, Department of Aging, New York Police Department, Fire Department of the City of New York, MTA’s Access a Ride as well as Reduced Fare services, NYC Rent Freeze Programs were represented at the venue.
India Home seniors Bharti Parikh, her nephew, and Narendra Bhutala with NYC Mayor Bill D’Blasio at the City Resource Fair in Queen
Most of the people who were waiting to meet the Mayor had come in search of a solution to specific issues like health care, transportation, housing and so on.
Several seniors from India Home attended the Resource Fair. Our seniors were very excited as well as honored to be able to meet the Mayor of New York City. The long lines did not deter our seniors, instead, the waiting allowed our elders more time to come up with other concerns they wished to share with the Mayor. “Since the Mayor has made so much of effort to organize this type of an event for all of us, in turn, we can definitely spare a few minutes standing in the line to meet him,” said Mr. Butala.
In the end, the hassle of waiting in line paid-off as the seniors finally got to meet the Mayor and expressed their problems. Mayor de Blasio immediately helped the seniors find solutions. “He was very friendly and patient in listening to all my problems and further asked Donna Corrado, Commissioner of Department for Aging who in turn helped me with information on care resources for my husband,” said Bharti Parikh. As for Mr. Butala, he brought an important issue to the Mayor’s notice: “I notified the Mayor about the increasing number of accidents near my neighborhood and how badly someone needs to take action for it,” he said.
By Rohandeep Arora, Intern (Pace University).
They danced on the stage, they danced in the street, they danced in front of our table. They were India Home’s wonderful senior ladies and nothing was going to stop them. Not the heat or the crowds or their sore feet. Our wonderful seniors had come prepared to be the life and soul of the Annual Rubin Block Party and they gave it their all.
Our seniors taught everyone, from the littlest guests to seniors like them, how to use the dandiya sticks. They demonstrated garba dance steps. They let people admire their beautiful chaniya choli (skirts and blouses) or saris. They also got the entire crowd to join in the dancing at one point.
We were thrilled to be one of the 6 community groups invited by the Rubin Museum’s Dawn Eshleman, Jane Hsu and Tashi Chodron to be part of the renowned Rubin Museum’s Annual Block Party that is held every summer. What we didn’t realize through all the planning and meetings was that it would offer so much fun for all concerned.
On a more serious note, our immigrant seniors who are also people of color, are sending a a very important message by participating in giant public events like the Rubin Block Party. Their very presence in these spaces demonstrates that older people of color are active and engaged in public life, that aging is what you make it to be. Their visibility helps to break down prejudices and benign ignorance around aging and seniors of color, and forces people to change their perspectives. Our mission is to challenge the stereotypes around aging, and we are grateful to the Rubin Museum for helping us realize it.
India Home’s Dilafroz Nargis Ahmed has won AARP’s Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community Hero Award. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) created the award in 2016 to acknowledge the hard-working staff and volunteers of nonprofit organizations serving AAPIs age 50-plus. AARP is the largest membership organization in the United States with over 38 million members across the country.
Nargis Ahmed, or Nargis Apa, as she is known to the seniors and staff, is the Center Director at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, the largest Muslim senior center in New York City. A staff member since 2014, Nargis has worked tirelessly to make the Desi Senior Center a warm and welcoming place for new immigrant Bangladeshi Muslim seniors, helping them to access social services, feel comfortable in their new country and integrate into American society. As Center Director, she oversees the programming that improves the well being of her seniors and provides a safe haven for the over 150 Muslim seniors who visit the center every program day. She also advocates for our seniors, providing valuable culturally relevant testimony and perspective to elected officials and city and state authorities on issues as varied as halal home delivered meals and transportation.
Talk to our seniors about Nargis, and they say that they look forward to coming to the center every day because of her warm and generous nature. She knows each one of them and their problems and always has the time to stop and listen. She has been their hero all along.
AARP garnered 61 nominations for the award and their judges chose 10 outstanding finalists. A popular vote competition on Facebook helped involve the AAPI communities and choose the top three winners. The top three finalists will each be awarded with $1,000 dollars and another $1,000 dollars will go to the non-profit organizations they represent.
Congratulations to them all — and especially to Nargis for her hard work and dedication to her community and India Home’s mission.
Written with contributions from Anita Konaje and Meeta Patel
A group of eight LGBTQ South Asians gathered around platters of mushroom kababs and Chicken Methi Malai at Sahib restaurant in Manhattan, NY, one evening in May, and worried that they would have nothing to say to each other. Okay, so they didn’t actually know each other, but it’s not as if strangers don’t get together at dinner all the time. What made this dinner different was that they were were all of wildly varying ages. Anita was 29, Meeta was 40ish, Per was 70, Pradip was in his 80s, Babu was in his 60’s, and then there was the baby of the group, 23 year old Rahim. The age difference was…shall we say, pretty wide, hence the worry. Still, they had been brought together to try a SAGE Table, and so here they were. Created by SAGE (Services &Advocacy for GLBT Elders) with support from AARP, the SAGE Table was a one day event that brought together different generations of LGBTQ+ people across America to share a meal. This particular SAGE Table was brought together by SALGA NYC, New York City’s community organization for LGBTQ+ South Asians.
SAGE had built the concept around a simple idea – namely, the generation gap. In America, older people are usually segregated from young people. Interests, music, spaces, trends, a relentless focus on youth – all tend to keep us stolidly fixed in our silos. For LGBTQ+ people the gap can sometimes be a chasm. Many older gay people are afraid to reveal their sexual orientation. Some LGBTQ+ people don’t have kids or a family that supports their choices. Hence the SAGE Table wanted LGBTQ+ people of all ages to get together. Share their experiences. Find out what it felt like to care for each other if age didn’t matter. Break bread (or in this case, naan).
It sounded great in theory, but Pradip was skeptical. He didn’t really like going to group events he confessed. They were always crowded with young people and no one talked to them. Often they were left to their own devices and after a while it got boring to hang around, he said. But his friend, Babu, had persuaded him to come to this particular SAGE Table, which was hosted by SALGA NYC. Anita, who was representing SALGA, had worried about the exact same thing. What would they talk about?
Over the tomato soup and pakoras, someone started talking about the resistance. Not the one now, but the one that had started in the ’60s and the ’70s, another time in history when social justice issues were boiling up. Pradip and Babu had both come to America at that time of fervent. They had participated in the movement for equal rights as college students. Meeta, who is also from SALGA, was intrigued by the fact that Pradip had arrived in America, even before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that brought so many South Asians to the US. But the ’60s were also a time when Westerners were going to India to find themselves. Per, another diner, had gone to Varanasi, lived in India for a while, and that had been another kind of revolution altogether.
The conversation moved on to books.
Pradip was a writer and had published a book of short stories in Bengali. Per had published a self-help book called “Gay Money,” that tells aging gay men how to organize their finances better. On Amazon, the description promises to tell gays and lesbians, among other nuggets of wisdom, “What insurance we absolutely need to protect our legacy, our lovers – or our independence.”
The food kept coming: Gutti Venkaya Kura, a delicacy from Andhra Pradesh, then, Alu Gobi, a dry potato and cauliflower dish.
Like the inveterate New Yorkers they were, the diners kept circling back to marvel at the life they led here. Everyone at the table felt lucky to be living in the city and lucky to be in a place that allowed LGBTQ+ communities, like the one gathered around the table, to have events like the one they were at.
The mango mousse arrived.
As the night wound on, everyone kept talking. Pradip said he was glad Babu had pushed him to come tonight; it was nice to talk to people for hours without thinking about age at all. Then it was time to leave. Where they would meet next time, they wondered. Would it be easier to meet in someone’s apartment? Or how about a picnic in Central Park.
This SAGE Table was organized by SALGA NYC on May 18th, 2017. You can click here to visit their website. Funds for the meal was generously provided by India Home, Inc.
India Home’s panel at the SAALT “United for Action” Summit in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C – On April 21, 22, and 23, India Home participated in the 2017 South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) Summit in Washington D.C. Deputy Director, Lakshman Kalasapudi and Afroditi Shah Panna, Case Manager, joined over 300 activists, organizations, students, and community members from across the country who had come together to raise their voices on a range of issues important to South Asian communities.
Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of SAALT, explained the thinking behind the Summit: “Our communities continue to live in various states of shock as a panorama of hate violence, civil rights violations, and anti-immigrant policies continue to impact South Asian Americans nationwide.” At this challenging moment, she said, South Asians were engaged in a “critical struggle for justice and full inclusion for all.”
“Disrupting Silos: Combating Ageism and Xenophobia”
The panel organized by India Home was one of 40 sessions at Trinity Washington University on urgent issues facing the South Asian community. The panel, titled, “Disrupting Silos: Combating Ageism and Xenophobia,” brought together community groups and advocates from New York City, the Bay Area, and Texas to discuss how they had organized and championed programs and services for South Asian older adults.
The community groups – spanning different nationalities, ethnicities, faiths, languages, and income levels – presented information on best practices gleaned from working in the trenches with their respective communities. They used the forum to share perspectives; discuss strategies for and partnerships that led to successful aging programs; tools to fight xenophobia and ageism and methods to address the unique challenges they and the communities they serve are facing with a new administration in place in Washington.
The panelists were:
Vega Subramaniam, Moderator (Contributor, Diverse Elders Coalition)
Shubhada Saxena (South Asians’ International Volunteer Association (SAIVA)
Asha Chandra (City of Fremont Human Services Department)
Kashmir Singh Shahi (Gurdwara Sahib Fremont)
Shah Afroditi Panna (India Home, Inc.)
Vishnu Mahadeo (Richmond Hill Economic Development Corporation (RHEDC)
Shaista Kazmi (Apna Ghar, LLC)
India Home’s Afroditi Shah Panna spoke about the difficulties facing Bangladeshi immigrant elders in NYC
Valuable perspectives on aging South Asians
They brought valuable perspectives on aging South Asian communities across the US, from Punjabi Sikhs in California to Indo-Carribeans in New York’s Richmond Hill. They told stories and related experiences. Afroditi Panna, a Case Manager with India Home, discussed the needs of aging adults in the Bangladeshi community. For example, many elders suffer from a lack of space and privacy because they live with adult children who cannot afford big apartments. Armed with this real life understanding and stories of the conditions these elders live in, India Home finds itself in a better position to advocate for more affordable housing, she said.
Shaista Kazmi, of Apna Ghar, an organization that provides caregiving facilities for South Asian seniors, spoke about the stresses on the so-called “sandwich generation” – second generation South Asians, many of whom lack extended family networks in America–who end up taking care of their own kids, as well as aging parents. The need for culturally competent caregivers is on the rise and it was important that these caregivers and home health aides not only be made aware of the fact that elder abuse exists in all communities, but that they are also trained to become “advocates for victims of elder abuse.”
Vishnu Mahadeo, who works closely with the Indo-Carribean community in New York city, spoke about the reliance among aging Indo-Caribbeans on over-the-counter drugs because they lack proper health insurance.
Kashmir Singh Shahi of Fremont Gurdwara Sahib urged South Asian communities to pay attention to senior issues and make them part of the conversation. The fact that sometimes older adults are neglected or their problems go unaddressed is also elder abuse, he said.
The panel strongly felt that community members needed to become part of the civic process in their cities, as a step toward drawing attention to the needs of South Asian seniors. Advocating for culturally appropriate services, getting more direct services, and casting a wide net to reaching South Asian elders in places beyond temples and gurdwaras was becoming more urgent with the increases in the population of elderly South Asians. “In order to build a system, we have to be part of the system,” Kashmir Singh Shahi said. Asha Chandra, who is a manager in the City of Fremont Human Services Department, brought another perspective when she described the volunteer efforts of older South Asians in Fremont. “It’s a win, win, win,” she said, “when seniors step up to work with city services.”
Lakshman Kalasapudi and Afroditi Panna of India Home march in DC as part of the SAALT rally to conclude the United For Action Summit 2017
On the evening of April 22, Afroditi Panna and Lakshman Kalasapudi of India Home participated in the South Asian Americans Marching For Justice event, a rally that began at Freedom Plaza and concluded with a march to the White House. They joined hundreds of other activists who marched for “a socially just country,” and demanded the support of policymakers towards that vision.
“Bringing aging issues to the forefront of the policy and advocacy agendas of our community is crucial to advance our communities equitably,” says Lakshman Kalasapudi of India Home’s participation in the SAALT summit.
India Home joins the crowd for Advocacy Day!
South Asian seniors, such as the one’s we serve at India Home, are among the fastest growing groups of older adults in New York City. For example, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future, from 2000-2010, the number of Indian seniors in NYC grew by 135%. However, in a counterintuitive move, city funding for senior services dropped by 20 percent, going from approximately $181 million in Fiscal Year 2009 to $145 million in Fiscal Year 2012.
Mayor De Blasio’s Executive Budget for 2018 adds no new funding to Department for the Aging (DFTA), which allocates money for senior services. DFTA receives less than ½ of 1% of the city budget – and less than 2% of all human services funding, even as the share of seniors in NYC has grown to 18% of the population. It has been widely documented that immigrant seniors also have unique needs. Many have Limited English Proficiency and large numbers live under the poverty line. For example, 27 percent of Bangladeshi seniors are below poverty, while the numbers for Indian seniors stand at 15 percent and Pakistani seniors at 22 percent.
As Bobbie Sackman, Associate Executive Director of Public Policy, LiveOn NY, said: “On behalf of the 300,000 older New Yorkers served by LiveOn NY’s members, we find it deeply disturbing that Mayor Bill de Blasio, once again, has refused to add any new money to fund vital services through the Department for the Aging (DFTA).”
India Home’s seniors meet with CM Jimmy Van Bramer
Given the situation–growing numbers of seniors and a lack of funding–India Home’s seniors felt it was even more important this year to join advocates from LiveOn NY and other senior-serving organizations to make their case directly to elected Council Members.
About 10 seniors from our Sunnyside Center and Desi Senior Center participated in Advocacy Day organized by LiveOn NY at City Hall on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. The day started with a rally on the steps of the famous building, where seniors holding India Home banners chanted, “No seniors, no budget,” along with the crowd. The fact that the budget for DFTA hadn’t increased was highlighted by various Councilmembers who spoke at the rally.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bremer who’s District includes Sunnyside, where India Home runs a center on Mondays, said, that “every year should be the year of the senior,” not just 2017. Danny Dromm, Councilman for Jackson Heights, and a longtime supporter of India Home, reiterated that “we need to be sure that seniors get their fair share of the budget.”
Councilman Danny Dromm speaks to the crowd on Advocacy Day 2017
Seniors and long time members of India Home’s Sunnyside Center, Usha Mehta, Bharat Patel, Dinesh Patel, Bharat Shah and Narendra Butala met with both CMs Van Bramar and Dromm and presented their demands for an additional day at the Sunnyside Center and better transportation. They urged the elected officials to approve India Home’s capital project citing the huge demand for India Home’s services and the lack of space that we are facing currently.
Seniors from India Home’s Desi Senior Center in Jamaica, Md. Abu Taher, Md. Mokbul Hossain, Mahbubul Latif and Mouirul Islam, met with CM Eric Ulrich’s office and CM Donovan Richards office. Desi Senior Center member, Md. Abu Taher spoke as a representative of all the seniors who couldn’t be there in person when he said: “We need more funds for Halal meals to give to people who cannot come to our center.We need more space; when we do exercise, it is very crowded.”
One of India Home’s stated missions is to create opportunities for seniors to lead and advocate for themselves. We were proud to see our members making their case with confidence with elected officials and their staff and their grasp of the important issues.
India Home’s seniors joined a letter writing campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to restore TitleXX funds for senior center programs
Seniors from India Home joined LiveOnNY, a senior citizen advocacy group, in a campaign to urge Governor Cuomo to leave the funding for seniors in the New York State budget intact. The budget proposed a transfer of $17 million in Title XX Funds funds from senior citizens’ programs to child care initiatives around New York state.
The change, claimed alarmed advocates, would result in putting 65 senior centers in New York at risk of closing and deprive 6,000 older adults of a day at a local senior center. “The senior center cuts would also equal the disappearance of 1.5 million meals and 24,000 hours of case assistance which help seniors with public benefits, housing concerns and other aid in their own language. Elderly immigrants will also lose a safe haven, where they can trust staff,” wrote Bobbie Sackman of LiveOnNY in an op-ed in NY Slant.
India Home’s older adults took enthusiastic part in this spirited advocacy campaign to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to restore the Title XX funds as members of New York’s only professionally-staffed centers for immigrant South Asian seniors. Our seniors wrote 40 letters that were delivered to Governor Cuomo in Albany.
In the end, the pressure from 17,500 letters from 141 senior centers, phone calls and strong, united efforts by senior citizen advocates at City Hall and Albany worked to effect change. Last week, Governor Coumo restored the $17 million in Title XX funds for senior citizen programs to the state budget.
The Indian elders gathered around the seminar table in the conference room at Fremont City’s Human Services office were retired engineers and accountants. Many had spent over 20 years in America. Some lived with their children and some didn’t. All of them loved the wide roads in their county, the considerate drivers who drove the buses they took everywhere, and the bi-weekly gatherings at their senior center. They were opinionated, knowledgeable and enthusiastically shared their ideas.
The elders had been invited by Ms. Asha Chandra, Program Manager and Communications Specialist at the City of Fremont to participate in a focus group being held to understand the challenges and issues that Indian seniors face. Ms. Chandra planned to share the data gathered with Fremont’s decision makers and said she planned to hold many more of these focus groups with various immigrant populations as part of the effort to get Fremont included in the list of World Health Organizations Age-Friendly cities.
California’s Indian population climbed 68 percent to 528,000 people from 2000 to 2010, making it by far the largest Asian Indian community in the U.S. For instance, in Fremont, Indian Americans make up 10.15 percent of the overall population of 203,415. I happened to be in California and was interested in learning how the state was dealing with this large and growing population of immigrants–especially its Indian senior citizens.
The focus group in Fremont was led by Mr. Krishnaswamy Narasimhan, a trained Community Ambassador with the city of Fremont and the Secretary of the Indo-American Seniors Association Fremont (INSAF). The Community Ambassador Program for Seniors (CAPS) is the City of Fremont’s award winning, nationally recognized effort that trains volunteer ambassadors to serve seniors in “their own communities, in their own language, within their own cultural norms, and does so where seniors live, worship, and socialize. ” Community Ambassadors like Mr. Narasimhan serve as a bridge between the formal social services agencies and their respective faith and cultural communities, like temples, gurdwaras and other places, and help seniors to locate senior services and programs in the City of Fremont.
An ideal for aging?
The focus group was also a visioning project–the elders in the room were asked to imagine an ideal scenario in three major areas: transportation; social participation and inclusion; and dementia support. It turned out their dreams were modest and easily attainable-the elders wanted a better transportation system like a shuttle service that took them to senior centers and other places where seniors congregate, more frequent stops, better paratransit options. They had the same challenges that our seniors face in New York–lack of good, frequent transportation or parking spaces, accessibility and problems with notification. When it came to social participation and inclusion, the seniors wished they had a bigger community center that brought together different activities under one roof. What surprised me, though, was the equivocal desire many of them expressed for opportunities to meet with other immigrant communities and experience their cultures. Their desire to “assimilate” with different cultures was strong, as was their need for activities where they could share their unique skill sets with others. Again, their challenges were similar to ones elders at India Home face–difficulties with language access, lack of awareness about local resources, a need for more social and intergenerational interaction, and more support from volunteers, especially to care givers of dementia patients.
Benefits of including immigrant elders
I came away from the focus group session thinking about the many challenges our fast-greying American cities face and all that remains to be done to solve these problems. By 2050 nearly one in five Americans (19%) will be an immigrant. By 2025, the immigrant, or foreign-born, share of the population will surpass the peak during the last great wave of immigration a century ago. As these diverse communities age we will need local, state and federal agencies to step up to meet their needs. Asking immigrant participants for their input and including them in the process as these cities plan for an age-friendly future is an important, necessary step and one I wish more cities would emulate.