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.
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.
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.
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 anop-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.
A fit older man in a dapper suit suit turns to his wife and sings a few lines from a romantic song in Hindi, ” Life is nothing but your story and mine,” he croons. She laughs, almost shy, as he puts his arms around her. As he continues to speak of his love and their life together, they both begin to cry.
The couple in the video are Dinesh and Kusumben Parmar, active members of India Home. They are the stars in a video campaign created for AARP by Next Day Better, a media company that specializes in telling stories about Asian American communities.
His goal is two-fold says Ryan Letada, CEO and Co-Founder. On the one hand they want to bring immigrant Asian American and Pacific Islander stories and histories into the mainstream; on the other they want to “build intergenerational/inter-relationship understanding and empathy to strengthen and unify families.”
Next Day Better asked Dinesh and Kusumben to share their “love origin story” as a way to highlight their family’s history in America, a history that is shared by so many other immigrants to this country. Immigrants like Dinesh and Kusumben know that their stories go beyond mere romance to encompass an unconditional love that is expressed through courage, long struggle and sacrifice for the sake of family. Dinesh poignantly sums up the stories of so many new comers to America when he describes the couple’s life together as a ” journey of sacrifice, sorrow and happiness. ”
Watch the video for more on Dinesh and Kusumben’s poignant love story.
You’ve seen the advertisements around Valentine’s Day—the media and your timeline are probably filled with them. These images invariably feature young people—beautiful, tan, fit young people with perfect hair and dazzling teeth celebrating their love. These images are also rampantly ageist. You may not realize it, but this is the culture subtly telling you that everything associated with Valentine’s Day—love, beauty, passion, physical intimacy—all the beautiful human experiences somehow only belong to the young.
By reinforcing these stereotypical ideas of love, the media writes older adults out of the national consciousness, diminishes their real experiences of love and dehumanizes them. Perhaps, as Ashton Applewhite, author and anti-ageism advocate says, the time has come to “think critically about what age means in this society, and the forces at work behind depictions of older people as useless and pathetic. Shame can damage self-esteem and quality of life as much as externally imposed stereotyping.”
Love Transcends Age
Many of the seniors at India Home find themselves at a point where they are in a position to enjoy the companionship they have achieved over a lifetime spent together.
As Geeta put it, “Even today, after 45 years of marriage, we go everywhere, for walks, shopping and so on, together. He [her spouse, Shantilal] likes being with me.”
Sudha, said of her partner of 52 years, “We’ve learned to live together over the years. When one is angry, the other keeps quiet. Then when we cool down we talk about it, express our opinions.”
Listening to these veteran couples would help anyone who has ever been in a relationship identify and empathize with them and undo, what Applewhite calls, “the “otherness” that powers ageism…”
The truth is that love transcends age. This doesn’t need to be said, but older adults, whether they are 60 or 80 years old, feel love, longing, tenderness, friendship, passion–all the emotions that make us fully and gloriously human.
Giridhar, a quiet senior at our center, expressed his feelings about his relationship eloquently when he said, “Like the left leg and the right leg is needed to keep the body upright, my wife and I worked together to make our marriage work.”
Disrupting Notions of Love
So to celebrate this Valentine’s Day, we decided to disrupt the stereotypes that exclude older adults from this national celebration of love. Our Twitter campaign features vibrant, loving couples talking candidly about their long partnerships.
After all, love is love, no matter what age you feel you are.
by Wendy Cope
Today we are obliged to be romantic And think of yet another valentine. We know the rules and we are both pedantic: Today’s the day we have to be romantic.
Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic. You know I’m yours and I know you are mine. And saying that has made me feel romantic, My dearest love, my darling valentine. –
India Home recently undertook a Needs Assessment Survey of the Bangladeshi elders we serve in order to gain an objective and honest understanding of their needs. In the tradition of our partnerships with universities, the survey was conducted by graduate students from Hunter College Urban Policy & Leadership Graduate Research. The findings from the survey were published in a report titled “Migrating from Bangladesh to New York: Needs of Seniors.” Working closely with India Home’s staff, graduate students, Katherine Elston, Marc Fernandes Oriade, Tanik Harbor and Jormary Melo co-authored the report.
The 2010 US Census reported that the New York metropolitan area is home to the largest concentration of South Asians in the United States. Bangladeshi seniors were the fastest growing group among all seniors in New York City, increasing at a rate of over 600% between 2000 and 2014, according to the Asian American Federation’s 2016 American Community Survey.
Moreover, 52% of the respondents in Jamaica had arrived in the US only within the last five years, and an additional 15% within the last ten. As a result, 77% of Bangladeshi seniors have limited English proficiency–a fact that points to an even greater need for immediate support.
The elders were asked 4 questions:
What are the current housing needs for Bangladeshi seniors in regards to being both affordable as well as culturally-specific?
What physical and mental health issues are impacting these seniors?
Is access to quality health care available in their community?
How does transportation (or lack of) impact their daily lives?
A robust survey tool and interview template was used to get answers from the elders at India Home’s Desi Senior Center. The survey was administered to 106 survey respondents and to nine key informants chosen from among other non-profits and leaders serving the community. The responses yielded a rich trove of data which was then analyzed to provide findings and make recommendations for the future.
Community Gaps and How to Move Forward
The research provided strong evidence of need for Bangladeshi seniors in Jamaica. The research team identified key findings within housing, mental and physical health, and transportation. In addition, the data revealed two important underlying concerns that should be addressed immediately.
1. Bangladeshi seniors face the highest rates of poverty and low income status across New York City.
2. As one of the newest senior immigrant populations in the region, their English language skills are low. This lack of proficiency makes it extremely hard for these seniors to navigate the community and the social service resources they need for support.
Furthermore, the findings from this needs assessment in Jamaica show even higher rates of lack of income and limited English proficiency than previously collected data from other city-wide research efforts.
Elders fill out the surveys created by Hunter College Urban Policy and Leadership Graduate Research
A few of the key findings to the initial four questions include:
Lack of affordable culturally-specific independent senior housing in Jamaica
high levels of social isolation and the stigma seniors face in regard to talking about their state of mental health
the absence of chronic disease management and the negative impact of poor diet and limited exercise on their quality of life
the underutilization of the public transit system due to cost, language barriers, and discomfort in navigating the system.
The research teams recommended that all needs identified within the report be integrated into India Home’s long-term strategic plan and the specific recommendations provided be taken up for implementation.
expanding daily services at the center
creating innovative programs for seniors and their families
strengthening existing community partnerships as well as building new ones, and
continuing to collect data to gain a deeper understanding of the community.
The report felt that by incorporating the report’s recommendations, India Home can further its mission to address the inequities that impact the most vulnerable community member, and help transform Jamaica’s Bangladeshi senior population from one with great needs to one with greater assets.
Everett Lo leads the Regional Network for the White House Initiative of Asian American Pacific Islander that has over 33 agencies under it’s purview.
Jan 11, 2017, Jamaica– India Home hosted a Listening Session with the White House Initiative on Asian and Pacific Islander Americans at the Desi Senior Center in Jamaica, Queens, NY. Everett Lo, as the lead for the Regional Network for WHIAAPI, helped India Home put together the Listening Session which brought together an unprecedented number of representatives of federal, state, and local government. These agencies included the Administration for Community Living (ACL), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS), the US Department of Labor (USDOL), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and more. The aim of the Listening Session was two-fold: on the one hand it was to inform our Bangladeshi elders about the range of government services available to them. On the other, it allowed the representatives on the panel to hear directly from our elders and understand their unique concerns. An interpreter translated their remarks into Bengali so the elders could follow along.
Each representative spoke about the scope of their agency and its abilities to meet the needs of our elders: for instance, Shyconia Burden of USCIS talked about waivers that are available to elders taking the citizenship test and warned them about the dangers of handing original documents to unauthorized agents. Dennis Romero of SHAMSA discussed the support services available to combat addictions to prescription medicines.
Elders Get Answers
The representatives spent the second hour answering questions from the 70+ elders gathered in the room. A large majority of questions had to do with immigration and citizenship. Our clients wanted to know more about the citizenship test, the rules for affidavits of support and so on. Medicaid and the ACA was another topic that gave rise to a lot of questions. Some common themes emerged. Our elders were concerned with access across the board: whether it was access to language, health care, information in a way they could understand or transportation and metro cards.
India Home’s Desi Senior Center provides congregate meals, ESL and exercise classes, cultural activities and social connection to over 150 elders a day, three times a week. The elders we serve face unique challenges: 74% of all Bangladeshis in New York City were born outside the USA and 53% have limited English proficiency. Anecdotal and case management evidence tells us that some of them are unfamiliar with American systems. Many elders struggle to understand how health insurance or the subway works.
Panel of speakers brought in by the White House Initiative for Asian American Pacific Islanders
Shyconia Burden of USCIS got a lot of questions from our speakers. (right) Ms. Mahbooba Kabita, interpreted remarks into Bengali
Putting a Face to the Issues
The panel was an opportunity for our immigrant elders to see American democracy in action and understand that the government is not some remote entity, but made up of people who, in theory at least, work for them. Our elders got an opportunity to meet the agencies which make the decisions that directly impact their lives. For the representatives at the table it was a chance to put faces to and connect with the clients they make critical decisions about, and understand their unique culture and circumstances.
The Exceeding Expectations project, Chandrakant Sheth and India Home was also given a two page spread in India Abroad, the oldest newspaper in North America catering to the South Asian diaspora.
The project’s goal is to challenge people’s expectations of growing old and to present different possibilities beyond the extreme images of frailty and skydiving, as we like to say. – Heather Clayton Colangelo
Heather Clayton Colangelo found India Home’s very own Chandrakant Sheth and shadowed him for a year, going to his home, meeting his family and friends, and visiting us and his friends at India Home’s Sunnyside Center. We interviewed her about the project and what sparked her interest in Chandrakant Sheth:
What made you choose Chandrakant Sheth as a subject?
We spent several months trying to find 20 people all in their 80s that represented the diversity of New York City. We wanted people in all different living situations, with different interests, from different socioeconomic backgrounds and from different neighborhoods. The key piece was that each person needed to be seeking purpose in some way, to have a goal that they were trying to accomplish. The project’s goal is to challenge people’s expectations of growing old and to present different possibilities beyond the extreme images of frailty and skydiving, as we like to say.
I heard about India Home because of the opening of the Desi Senior Center right around the time we were looking for participants for the project, and were intrigued. As a then-resident of Astoria, I was also hoping to find someone suitable to follow in Queens as I wanted to represent the borough I dearly love. I contacted Lakshman at India Home and he recommended Chandrakant to me. He described Chandrakant as someone warm and genuine, with a thirst for learning, which made him a perfect fit for our project. Asking someone to be vulnerable and open their life up to a stranger is not an easy task, but from the beginning Chandrakant was willing to go outside of his comfort zone and share his life and thoughts with me.
You’ve been shadowing him for a year. How did your relationship develop?
The very first time I sat down with Chandrakant he was incredibly candid and genuine. He expressed enthusiasm for the goals of Exceeding Expectations and wanted to share his story as a way to help other people facing aging with limited models. I believe we talked for more than 3 hours that first day. Throughout the project he continued to graciously open up his heart and life to me, sharing his poetry, introducing me to family members, bringing me along on trips to India Home, and feeding me delicious food at his home. I feel grateful to have learned so much both professionally and personally from him.
What has the reaction to Exceeding Expectations been?
The reaction has been wonderful and is ongoing. We have heard from people young and old that they are inspired and see growing old in a more nuanced light. We have had pieces published in a variety of publications to reach new audiences, as well as on our website. We have more stories coming soon and hope people will follow along and share them with their friends! Best of all, we received funding from the New York Community Trust for a second year, so that we are able to follow these 20 inspiring people even longer and share their stories more widely.
Can you share a little of what you learned over the course of this project with Chandrakant Sheth and India Home.
India Home is an inspiring place. The people who attend demonstrate the diversity within the experience of older immigrants in New York, especially depending on what age a person has come to the U.S. and with what resources and knowledge. India Home is an example of the importance of culturally appropriate services and the need for meeting places in a city made of micro neighborhoods and cultural communities.
From Chandrakant, I have learned so much. I have learned how much having a positive outlook can aid resiliency and how it is a basic human need to have a sense of community. I have seen with Chandrakant, as with others that we are following, the challenges of building a new life and finding new connections when one’s partner passes. And I am also inspired by his desire to widen his community beyond only people with his same background. And finally, I have been so impressed by Chandrakant’s thirst for knowledge and how adept at technology he is! Chandrakant certainly challenges anyone’s belief that learning technology in old age is not possible.
We still have another part of Chandrakant’s story to come, so stay tuned!