Jamaica, Queens: On November 28, 2017, India Home inaugurated the first ever Dementia Day care program tailored to South Asian immigrants at it’s new facility in Jamaica, Queens.
Titled 3 D, for Desi Dementia Day Care, the facility plans to offer expert care that aligns with South Asian values for older adults suffering from mild to moderate dementia. We expect this new expansion will help to bridge the gap for culturally appropriate dementia -related services in New York city.
With a mandate to “serve all” South Asian seniors, regardless of income, faith or country of origin, for the last 10 years, India Home’s culturally relevant programs have helped immigrant South Asian elders deal with one of the toughest problems of growing old in America – social isolation and loneliness. We hope that the new 3D center will provide a welcome and safe space for South Asian patients experiencing mild to moderate dementia, but also provide a respite to caregivers.
South Asian seniors are among the fastest growing groups of seniors in New York city. According to the Center for an Urban Future’s report in New York City alone, Indians are the second largest immigrant group. Between 2000 and 2010 the population of older immigrants from India grew by 135 percent or about 8000 people. The number of Bangladeshi immigrants from Bangladesh grew in the previous decade by 471%, while the Pakistani populations grew by 38 percent from 2008 to 2011. These immigrants face language and cultural barriers, increased isolation, and higher levels of poverty–all barriers to access needed services like dementia care.
Wide Range of Programs to Meet Growing Need:
Speaking on the occasion, Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, India home’s Executive Director said: “For the past 10 years, India Home has offered South Asian seniors culturally appropriate services in Queens and our expansion into dementia services is driven by the growing need for such services in the South Asian community.”
The 3D Desi Dementia Care center will offer programs specially tailored to help with dementia such as exercise, arts activities, music and sensory therapy. The center will also provide two hot meals a day, counsel families on dementia care and provide a respite for caregivers.
Nahar Alam of the Center of Asian American Health at NYU will assist with outreach in South Asian community in Queens.
Dancing the garba – great for physical and mental fitness
It’s India Independence Day, 2017, and at the celebration being held at Queens Borough Hall in Queens, NY, the young announcer invites the next act to come up on stage. Ten women from India Home file in and start dancing, their bright white, orange and red saris billowing, their feet making dexterous patterns to the insistently upbeat music. The scene is remarkable not for the fact that there are Indian dancers in Queens, but because the women swaying on stage are all between 65 and 85 years old.
It is no coincidence that these women are so fit and vigorous. They have been dancing for years and are living proof of a growing body of research that links participatory arts activities to an increase in the health, well being, and quality of life in aging adults. One study of adults aged 60 and over suggested “health benefits of dance for older adults such as improved cognition and attention, posture and balance, and hand/motor skills in comparison to the control group. ” And it’s not just dance. Createequity, a think tank and online publication “investigating the most important issues in the arts” has analyzed extensive research that shows that taking part in arts related activity benefits older adults in myriad ways.
Singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing (i.e., perceived quality of life)
Playing a musical instrument has myriad positive effects, including dementia risk reduction
Visual arts practice generates increases in social engagement, psychological health and self-esteem
In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts published the results of a landmark multisite (Washington DC metro area, Brooklyn and San Francisco) national study undertaken with the aim of “measuring the impact of professionally conducted community based cultural programs on the general health, mental health, and social activities of older persons, age 65 and older.” Referred to as the Creativity and Aging Study, it was the first effort in this area to use an experimental design and a control group to study 300 participants in the 65-103 age range.
The results were striking. The 150 older adults who were involved in weekly participatory art programs reported: (A) better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; (B) more positive responses on the mental health measures; (C) more involvement in overall activities. The results pointed to the powerful positive effects of community-based programs run by professional artists, now known as Creative Aging Programs.
What in the world is Creative Aging?
Lifetime Arts, a nonprofit organization is very clear on what Creative Aging is not: “it’s not about making macaroni necklaces.” Creative Aging then according to Lifetime Arts is ” the practice of engaging older adults in participatory, professionally run arts programs with a focus on social engagement and skills mastery.” These are programs based in the belief that individuals do not stop growing or learning at any age. They are interventions, and disruptions that help older adults free themselves from traditional and limiting preconceptions about aging and decline and help them discover new possibilities, and new skills.
Learning New Ways of Creative Expression
Drawing with pastels in a class made possible by a grant from Lifetime Arts.
At our Sunnyside Center, Creative Aging classes include photography and drawing workshops, recreational dance, as well as poetry and memoir classes.
At India Home drawing classes are taught by professional artists
Starting in November, a 9-week long drawing workshop, run by Ebenezer Singh, a professional artist and funded through a grant from Lifetime Arts, is introducing elders to advanced drawing using a wide range of materials such as India Ink, carbon pencil, watercolors. The classes also include conversations about historical and contemporary art, and introduces famous Indian artists, thus adding cultural sensitivity to the mix. While some of the participants were unsure of their artistic skills in the beginning, their confidence grows day by day. “I didn’t know I could draw like this,” Shobana Shah said in a recent class. “I’m enjoying learning this very much.”
In a paper published in the journal Arts and Health in 2012, lead researcher Nikky Greer documented improvements in both mental health and social wellbeing, “through increased social engagement, self-awareness, empowerment, and a sense of calm and relaxation.”
Our Sunnyside participants are so enthusiastic about the classes, they take photos of their work with their cell phones, so they can go home and practice before the next week rolls around.
Elders from India Home’s Desi Senior read from their memoirs
Meanwhile, our Desi Senior Center, India Home’s largest center in Jamaica, Queens, offers writing workshops to older Muslim men and women from Bangladesh thanks to a grant from Poets and Writers.
In Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life Story Writing, author Ruth E Ray explains why writing and sharing life stories in groups is valuable from a developmental perspective for older adults. Writing and sharing life stories allows them to not only make public the methods by which they make meaning of their own lives, but also “seeing and hearing others” helps them to understand that they are not alone in that meaning-making process.
At our Desi Senior Center, the ten week memoir course meets for an hour and a half every week, and families and friends are invited to attend the final reading. One recent Thursday, participants were encouraged by their instructor, Sabbin Akhter, a published writer herself, to read aloud from short memoir pieces that the elders had written to illustrate commonly used proverbs in Bangladesh. The readings were lively, full of dialogue and imagery. Lyrical descriptions of trees, cows, fields and the seasons evoked the villages from which the elders had migrated. As each writer in the circle finished reading their piece, the others applauded, shouting encouragement. “You get the first and second prize,” one grandmother told another, clapping her hands in delight. The sense of camaraderie and friendliness between the budding writers is palpable.
Our Approach to Creative Aging is Evolving
India Home is committed to intentionally engaging Creative Aging as a targeted program and our approach continues to evolve. Our aim, as it is with most of our programming, is to focus on creative activities that are culturally appropriate. While it is sometimes challenging to find artists who speak South Asian languages or can offer culturally appropriate art activities, we persist because culturally relevant programming is the most effective way to reach the seniors in our communities.
Still, watching our older adults laugh over a wonderful memory in their notebook, or admire a still life of colorful fruit that they created in an afternoon, or dance on a stage at the Rubin Museum, are reasons enough for us to constantly innovate and continue to offer these programs.
Rosa Mendonza is singing. The 86 year old doesn’t speak much English, so she decides to sing instead. Her beautiful, rich voice rises in long trills above the crowd in the bright room and and seems to set the very trees outside the windows quivering. The murmuring crowd falls silent as her voice fills the room.
She stops. Her audience draws a breath, then erupts into cheers.
Columbia University’s Aging Center celebrated the culmination of its project Exceeding Expectations
It’s a wondrous moment in a morning filled with revelation and wisdom that came from 18 or so elder New Yorkers who sit on chairs before a crowded audience in the auditorium of Columbia University’s Journalism school.
The audience had been invited by Columbia University’s Robert N. Butler Aging Center to celebrate the culmination of its Exceeding Expectations project. Started in 2015, by Ruth Finkelstein, a psychologist, and Dorian Block, a journalist, the storytelling project “explores how people find purpose later in life,” through writing, photography and video. The “people” in this case are aging New Yorkers who are disrupting expectations of what it means to grow old.
“The goal was to show the lives of every day people and 20 people in every category of diversity were chosen,” according to Dorian Block.
The elders being honored are certainly reflective of New York city’s diverse population. Among them is India Home’s own Chandrakant Sheth, an elder who has been a regular at our Sunnyside Center for years. A senior writer and photographer on the project, Heather Clayton Colangelo, shadowed Chandrakant as he went about his everyday life. She followed him to India Home, on his walks around the city, and into his room as he pecked away at his keyboard. She talked to him while he gardened, Skyped with his grandchildren, took art classes or hung out with his friends. “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,” Heather said in an interview for this blog in 2016.
Like Heather, other project staff chronicled the every day routines of each of the 19 men and women they followed.
Some of the participants who were shadowed by the Exceeding Expectations project
The result is a rich, fascinating glimpse of aging New Yorkers in their later decades–captured through film, photographs and writing. The stories were told in their own voices, in their own language, set in their familiar surroundings. These chronicles of the everyday are moving and funny, and occasionally tragic.
Dorian Black was clear why she wanted these stories out in the world: “Journalism is how we chronicle our time. Aging is universal-all of us are growing old, but the way journalists do it now is to show aging as either terrible, pitiable and static, or heroic!” Or as Heather put it, the project wanted to show aging as having “different possibilities beyond the extreme images of frailty and skydiving.”
The goal was to change hearts and minds, to make people see aging in a whole new way and more nuanced manner, as another life stage. The project asks viewers to understand that each of these individuals and their stories are unique.
For instance, there’s Sylvia Lack, an 84 year old New Yorker and lifelong activist, who has traveled to Albany for 40 years to advocate for social justice issues. “Every time I get on that train to Albany, the attendant greets me with “Here comes the No.1 Democrat!” she recalled to the delight of the crowd.
Not everyone was so voluble. Hank Blum when asked what he would have differently in his life just had only four words, “I wouldn’t have smoked.”
Asked what he thought he had learned from being part of the project, Chandrakant said, “It made me go back over my life, over the sad events and the happy events. Just sitting with these wonderful people enriched my knowledge.”
Chandrakant Sheth with Dorian Block, journalist and Director of Columbia’s Aging Center
“It also taught me that New York is the best city in the world. You meet so many people from so many places and they have so much to teach us. I think we should all mingle, rather than staying in our own little circles.”
Chandrakant, like so many of the others who’s stories we heard, had never stayed in his own circle. He had ventured far, far from home, having come to New York from India in 1969. For 40 years, he had worked and lived in this city, had moments of struggle and happiness, and created a new life and story for himself.
Now his unique immigrant story will become part of an invaluable record created by one of the world’s great universities and help others understand what it means to grow old in New York.
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.
By Nibras Karim, Hunter College Asian American Studies Program Intern
The Captain Tilly Park in Jamaica, is named after Captain George H. Tilly who was a local son of a prominent Jamaica family who was killed while fighting in the American war in the Philippines in 1899. The park is a local destination for Jamaica residents to relax and enjoy public space and greenery in their neighborhood. Situated on nine acres, the park is in the heart of Jamaica and a peaceful getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.
On September 21, 2017, as part of our effort to help with the health, fitness, and mental wellbeing of the seniors of our Desi Senior Center, we took them out for a change of environment and had them try some new activities they hadn’t done before. The seniors really enjoyed the scenery that the Captain Tilly Park had to offer such as the ducks and Canadian geese swimming about. They also enjoyed the picnic we had brought. They did their exercises outside and enjoyed the fresh air.
One highlight of the day was when they played games like carrom board and ludu. Carrom is a “strike and pocket” table game similar to billiards. Instead of using cue sticks and billiard balls, carrom is played by using different sized and colored pieces called carrom men. Some of the seniors were very passionate about winning the carrom board games. Prizes were given out to the winners of the games.
After they ate their picnic, they sang Bengali folk songs, solo and in chorus with others. Everyone was very supportive of each other regardless of their singing abilities. In the end of the picnic, all the seniors thanked the director of our Desi Senior Center Dilafroz Nargis Ahmed for making this wonderful picnic a possibility.
By all accounts, Bharti Parikh, 66, has led an exciting life. Her life has been an adventure that took her from a childhood in the tiny village of Patton in Gujarat, India, to a law degree, and fulfilling years in America that included working for the City of New York, being invited to be an artist at President Clinton’s inauguration, and being a singing star on TV.
However, there’s also another sadder, more stressful side to her story, one that is unfortunately shared by so many older adults in America. Bharti Parikh is a caregiver, and has had to be one for years. A senior herself, she continues to care for her husband who has Parkinson’s Disease, and her 88 year old mother. Until May 2017, she was also caring for her aged father who suffered various illnesses that kept him going in and out of hospital.
Her husband cannot use Medicaid, which pays for two-thirds of longterm care in the US, because it requires clients to be impoverished to qualify for benefits. Because of their income and their savings, the couple do not qualify and has “no choice.” Bharti is one of those millions in America who are trying to pay for long term care through savings, private insurance and family resources.
We highlight Bharti’s story as an example of seniors, who, even as they age and grow more frail, are also caring for loved ones who are older and sicker than themselves. Apart from the financial toll, caregiving can be physically and emotionally brutal on the caregiver. Caregivers like Bharti who are singlehandedly managing to take care of loved ones often find themselves alone and isolated.
However, with America’s population aging rapidly, the nation’s 2.2 million home care workers (also known as personal aides or home health aides) can barely meet the demand for their services. Not only is it hard to find care, it’s even harder to find a way to pay for care for more than a few hours a day, she says.
A slight, pretty woman with dark hair and clear skin who looks younger than her years, Bharti is an active member of India Home, always eager to dance the garba or sing traditional songs in her beautiful voice. She spoke to Meera Venugopal at her home in Woodside, Queens, while an aide took her husband for a walk.
Ashvin and Bharti Parikh on an picnic to Bear Mountain with India Home
Caregiver for her husband, parents and in-laws
My husband was fine until 2009. Then he got Parkinsons Disease. Now the disease is at its worst, and he needs someone to take care of him all the time. We can get help with Medicare but only a few hours a day, for three to four days a week. Then after 2-3 weeks, the payments stop. Now I have hired someone to take care of my husband for a few hours a day. That’s a private hire; I pay the aide from my pocket. The person I hired does everything from brushing my husband’s teeth to giving him a shower. He massages him, feeds him, takes him on a walk.
Before I was doing everything for him, and I had no help at all. But the aide I have now for my husband is old too, and he’s not going to be around forever. If I can get someone younger that would be great.
I talked to an agency and a social workers came and said “I’m going to help you. Your case is tragic, so I’m going to do this fast.” Once he went back, I never heard from him again. I’d call him and he refused to come to the phone and talk to me. Someone else called and said, “There are too many people on the waitlist. You won’t get an aide. You should apply for Medicaid.” I can’t apply for Medicaid—I have an income, and my husband had an income, I had a job, plus we have savings. So here we are. My sons are in Ohio, so my daughter, Shephali and son-in-law are living with me. They help me take care of my husband and my late father and my mother.
You know what’s tragic? I used to be a supervisor for New York City in the Human Resources Administration. I know all the rules and regulations on Medicare. I met Mayor Bill de Blasio at a fair in Queens, and he said he would get me a home health aide for my husband and I still didn’t get one. I’m going to go to the Mayor of New York City again and I’ll ask him: What happened to your promise?
Bicycling to college in small town India
I was born in a very small village called Patton, in Gujarat, India. I was the only daughter and my father loved me very much. He let me do anything I wanted. In my town they didn’t allow girls to go to school, even my uncle didn’t want me to study, but my father sent me to college. He didn’t want me walking to college, so I would bike. College was so much fun. I had so many friends. I would dance, take part in singing competitions, go on picnics. I started taking singing lessons, my father encouraged me to do that too.
I got married when I was in my second year of college. My mother-in-law too, let me study, and work. My son was born when I was in my 4th year. I started law school when I my son was five years old. I was going to start working as an advocate when my husband decided to come to the US.
A hole in her son’s heart brought her to America
My second son was born with a very small hole in his heart. The doctors said it may eventually close, but my husband said “I want to go to America because they have advanced treatment there. So we applied and got here.” He’d applied for a visa in 1968, but couldn’t come because he didn’t want to leave his mother alone. He would renew his application every year, and finally he got accepted in 1980. Until then, he was working as a chemical engineer. He was a Gold Medalist in Chemistry and he got the visa in two months! I came in 1981 with the kids and joined him in New York.
Chemical engineer to candy store owner
I started working at the Paul Stewart clothing company in New York almost as soon as I got here. That was my first job in America. Then after a year and half, my husband bought stores, first in the Bronx and then in Yonkers. Both stores had candy, magazines, lotto.
I would also work in the Yonkers store. We worked hard, day and night. Even my kids helped out in the store. We did very well. Then I had my daughter and I quit working in the store. But after 5 months or so of sitting at home, I was bored and applied for a job with the city. They finally called me on a Friday and said I had to come for an interview on Monday. The application was 25-30 pages long and they wanted to know my entire life – my education right from school in India.
In 1989 I started working for the city, for the Human Resources Administration (HRA), and I worked until 2012. I started as a case worker, and then I took the exam and I became a supervisor. We bought our house in 1994 in Woodside, Queens and we’ve been here ever since.
“Mom, you are a superwoman”
Bharti’s award from the Associations of Indians in America for her service during Diwali celebrations at South Sea Port
I would work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. then come home and take care of my kids, mother, father, husband. My parents were not doing so well. I would do everything, cooking, getting the groceries, school supplies, sitting with my kids as they did homework, going to PTA meetings, attending their programs and events. It was hard when the kids were small and I had my mother-in-law with me and she would get sick all the time. Now my kids say, “Mom, you are a superwoman.”
My father also lived with us until May this year. His aide would go home at 4:00 p.m. He was sick all the time. There were a lot of emergencies. I would have to run to the hospital and stay with him all day and all night. He couldn’t be alone because he doesn’t speak English. My niece lived near the hospital and in the morning I would go to her place and I would take a shower and go back to the hospital. For years, I did all this.
Later on my husband got worse and so I couldn’t stay with my father all day and night. But he couldn’t hear very well and he wouldn’t understand what they said, so the hospital would call me. Then my mother would have some problem in her head, and she would fall down again and again. They even did a biopsy, and they didn’t find anything
I had to look after all three. I had no choice. Sometimes my mother was sick, then my husband was sick. It could get very hectic. But in every Emergency, I felt God helped me. Someone somehow came along and helped us.
An invited artist at President Clinton’s inauguration
Singing with her guru – Bharti’s recordings are still played on TV programs for Indians in the US
Through all this I continued singing. I learned singing in the US with a Pakistani teacher. I even made a cassette tape of songs with him in India, and in the US we would do a lot of programs for Indian TV. Even now, they’ll sometimes play those all programs.
Bharti’s talents as a henna artist got her invited to participate in President Clinton’s Inauguration in Washington D.C.
For ten years I did henna designs every year for the South Sea Port Diwali Mela (Fair) for the Association of Indians in America – New York Chapter. I was self taught. I would get invited to weddings in Manhattan to do henna. Then the Association sent me to Washington D.C. during President Clinton’s inauguration. Artists were invited from all over the USA. We stayed for four days in the Marriott, and I was set up in a big tent on the National Mall. Hundreds of people came to get henna designs from me.
Art at India Home
I like that we get to do art at india home. I signed up for the drawing class. I want to learn new things. I like coming there, I like doing the exercises. My husband likes it too, all the different activities and meeting people.
On facing the future
My husband is getting worse. My mother is getting deaf, and she needs a full time aide. But it’s okay. We are not going to take the money with us—whatever we have we will leave it here, so why not use it? It’s not about the money, it’s about getting help.
If I can even get a little bit of trained help that would be nice. But I will spend whatever money I have to take care of him.
Bharti Parikh often brings her husband with her on her visits to India Home. Her children, she wanted us to say, have all done well. Her daughter works in the financial sector. The baby with the hole in his heart, Ripal, who was the reason the couple moved to America, is now a well known pain management specialist. Her eldest son, Nehal, is a neonatologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and researches prevention of neurodevelopmental disabilities in high-risk newborns.
India Home’s elders enact the aarthi worship ritual asking Ganesh, the elephant headed Hindu god,for intervention against obstruction
Lord Ganesh, the roly-poly, elephant-headed Hindu God is beloved of devotees not only across India, but also Nepal, Tibet and other Himalayan communities. As part of India Home’s on-going partnership with the Rubin Museum of Himalayan culture in Manhattan, our members, immigrants from India and Nepal presented a program for the Himalayan Heritage unit on their relationship with Ganesh.
The audience was diverse and was made up of people who ran the gamut from those who loved Himalayan culture and had visited India or Nepal several times, to curious folks who had wandered in out of a cold, rainy evening.
Rameshwor Koirala, a Nepali elder spoke of diverse traditions and memories
What they got were stories: childhood memories of waiting for hours in line to catch a glimpse of the most famous Ganesh statue in all of Bombay; a Nepali myth of Ganesh incarnated as a warrior God who breaks his tusk to throws it at the jeering moon; and surprising accounts of Tantric offerings of meat and whisky from Renu Shreshta, a member of the Newari community of Nepal.
Renu Shreshta, an immigrant elder from the Newari community in Nepal, related myths about Ganesh and her community’s unique rituals that include offerings of meat and whisky.
India Home elder Kaveri Amma sings a praise song to Lord Ganesha at the Rubin Museum event
Our elders also enacted the rituals of worship, wether it was the installation of a tiny statue of Ganesh, or the “visarjan” or immersion that is part of the cycle of the celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi (Ganesh’s Birthday). Meera Venugopal, India Home’s staff explained how the clay body of the God animated by the ardor of worship is returned to nature by being immersed in moving water. Just as our bodies are returned to the elements through death, so too Ganesh is sent off on his journey, only to be welcomed again next year.
India Home elders enact workshop rituals celebrating Ganesh’s birthday at Rubin Museum
The program ended in true South Asian fashion with feasting–there were samosas, hot tea, and laddoos, beloved sweetmeat of Ganesh.
India Home’s elders chanted and played the dholak drum as they led the audience around the room in a playful farewell to Lord Ganesh
Rubin Museum’s Assistant Manager of Cultural Programs and Partnerships, Tashi Chodron, welcomed a full house to the program
Once again Rubin Museum’s audiences had an opportunity to experience a culture through the authentic medium of stories of lived experience. Our elders were thrilled to share their lives, perform and be seen as active, talented story-tellers and performers.
By Rohandeep Arora
Outside the Sikh Gurudwara in Richmond Hill, Queens, I approached an older Sikh man with a turban and a long, flowing beard. “Hello, Uncle!” I said in Punjabi, my mother tongue. “Do you have a couple of spare minutes to fill out a survey on our research for the needs of the South Asian seniors?” “Sure, beta,” he said. He was very pleased to help me out and patiently answered my questions. It was very hot day, and after a while, he invited to his home which was two blocks down from where we were for a cold drink. He sent me on my way with best wishes for my future.
This experience was just one of many similar encounters I and my fellow interns had this summer as we helped gather data for the first ever needs assessment of South Asian seniors in New York City. We were working with India Home, the only professionally staffed nonprofit in the North East that serves South Asian elders, to gather information on a wide range of issues that confront immigrant South Asian seniors.
India Home’s interns fanned out across Queens to interview South Asian elders for a new Needs Assessment Survey this summer. Tenzin is talking to two seniors.
My fellow hardworking interns, Tenzin, Zarifa, Daiyan, Sanjana, Amna and I helped India Home to survey the needs of South Asian seniors in areas of New York City that have high populations of South Asian immigrants like Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Our goal was to understand the requirements of these seniors and make them feel comfortable enough to answer our questions. We surveyed senior citizens who have immigrated from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Guyana, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and other South Asian countries. We visited temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches, senior centers, and spent time in parks and streets in order to gather legitimate data for the needs assessment research.
South Asian Seniors Overlooked and Underserved
South Asian immigrant seniors are part of a demographic that is often overlooked by social service agencies, community providers, and public policy initiatives. They face issues of social isolation, limited English proficiency, poverty, health difficulties, transportation deficits, and more. Even though they are among the fastest growing groups of the older adult population of New York city, South Asian seniors are consistently underserved by government agencies. India Home aims to gather objectively verifiable data to make a strong case for increased focus on South Asian seniors.
Interns who spoke the languages of South Asia
India Home’s interns spoke over 12 languages between them and were competent in diverse South Asian cultures
India Home’s gathered an intern team that was very diverse and multilingual. Between all of us, we spoke close to 12 South Asian languages.
Zarifa Ahmadi (Queensboro Community College), originally from Pakistan, speaks Urdu, Hindi, Dari, Farsi and Pashto.
Tenzin Lama (Baruch College), who is from Nepal, is fluent in Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi.
I am from India and can speak Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu fluently. (Pace University)
Amna Aslam (Vassar College), originally from Pakistan, is fluent in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.
Daiyan Hossain (Hamilton College), originally from Bangladesh, can speak Bengali fluently.
Sanjana Inala (The College of New Jersey), who is from India, speaks Telugu.
Many older adults from South Asia have little or no English proficiency which makes it difficult for them to communicate in this country. That is why our abilities in multiple languages paid off when we encountered elders who were not proficient in English. My team and I did not face any problems in talking to elders and translating the surveys to them. Even those seniors who could speak some English were happy to have us approach them in their native tongue.
“Quite a few seniors have adjusted themselves to the city’s lifestyle but still miss the friendliness and warm community relationships in their native lands. Most of them get very excited when we approach the seniors with their mother tongue and are pleased to help us by participating in the survey,” said Tenzin Lama.
Even though we came from different backgrounds and cultures, we enjoyed each other’s company, whether we were working or taking a day off to enjoy the summer in NYC.
What is the survey about?
“What is the survey about” was the very first question the elders invariably asked us. We would tell them that the survey asked detailed questions related to the lifestyle of South Asian seniors, like marital status, age, year of immigration, a reason of immigration, income, housing status, health related questions, social security income and much more. “The surveys are anonymous and records no personal information of the respondents,” we would reassure them.
We made sure our elder participants in the Needs Assessment Survey were comfortable. Daiyan is interviewing a senior.
Challenges in the Field
One of the biggest challenge we faced was convincing the seniors we met that taking the survey would not harm them in any way. Despite repeated assurances that their responses were anonymous, many elder respondents were scared. Some were undocumented or had a distrust of government. The lack of literacy among immigrant seniors was also reason why it was hard for our interns to persuade elders to take the survey. However, we were trained to combat this distrust and fear. For instance, our team was trained to greet elders appropriately and with respect according to the cultural norms of their respective cultures. Thus we would fold our hands in a namaste while approaching Indian elders or say tashi delek to greet Tibetan elders.
I like to think that our cultural competence helped to put the elders at ease. “Sometimes elders need that support from someone to move on from a tragedy or depression if they have any. Sometimes they want to share some tragic experience,” Sanjana said.
The other thing we did well was listen – sometimes to much more than just answers to our questions. “Most of the senior citizens we surveyed were very friendly and warm. I think they tend to feel lonely when their families aren’t home which makes the seniors more than happy to communicate and share their experiences with someone” said Sanjana.
Funding for the needs assessment was generously provided by New York Community Trust and SAALT We Build Community.
Our seniors, many of whom are from Bangladesh, went to visit Boscobel House, one of America’s greatest historical homes
On July 27th 2017 our seniors from our Desi Senior Center went on a summer picnic to Boscobel House and Gardens in Hudson Valley. Described by Nelson A. Rockerfeller, then Governor of New York, in his keynote address at Boscobel’s opening celebration in 1961 as “one of the most beautiful homes ever built in America,” the house is considered, “one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in the country and contains one of the nation’s leading collections of furniture and decorative arts from the Federal period,” according to their website. In short, it is a quintessentially American gem.
Many of our seniors are immigrants from Bangladesh and are relative newcomers to America. Many do not have the economic means to travel for pleasure. So this trip was very exciting and a revelation for them, one that had them looking forward to getting out into the open air for days.
Our seniors were awed by the breathtaking views of the Hudson Valley
As the bus wound along the Hudson, and they finished their breakfast and broke out the snacks, they admired the beauty the towns and mountains we passed through and were vocal in their appreciation of the river and the rocky cliffs that fell away from the road.
The bus got to Boscobel mansion at around 12:00 PM. The driver made a mistake and took our party to the entrance to the woods instead of Boscobel. “You build up so much expectation through the journey only to bring us to the woods?” our seniors joked. Though, once we found the correct entrance, everybody was in awe of the elegant house set in the midst of beautiful rolling gardens, and the breathtaking views of the Hudson river shimmering in the calm valley.
Docents explain the history and traditions of Boscobel House to our seniors
Docents from Boscobel treated our seniors to a tour of the house and the gardens. They went went over its unique architectural details, furniture and decorative objects, and also talked about daily life in the early 1800s. Our seniors loved hearing the stories of the history and traditions of the house. The docents were thrilled with their enthusiasm and interest and answered many questions with patience and humor.
Boscobel House had provided us with tents to rest in and have our picnic. Later in the evening, our seniors, who come from a tradition that reveres literature and poetry, held an impromptu cultural event under the tents.
They sang folk songs in Bengali. They recited famous poems by poets like Nurul Hassan or Rabindranath Tagore, or the ones they had written, told jokes, and read from famous works of literature or their own pieces.
That is where we shall leave them: a collection of our Muslim elders, on the grounds of this tradition-steeped American historical landmark, filling the air that wafts off the storied Hudson river with their own words and songs – creating on that day their own American moment and memories.
Reporting contributed by: Sabit Bhuyian
Our seniors recited poetry and sang folk songs in Bengali in an impromptu cultural event under the tents at Boscobel
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is the largest and most influential museum of modern art in the world. As part of a creative aging initiative, our seniors got to engage with the art of photography in the MoMA. The program featured a guided tour of exhibits, and two photography classes at our center conducted by Jano Cortijo, an artist-educator from the museum.
“Looking” at photos at MoMA:
Jano Cortijo, an artist educator from the MoMA asks our what they notice in Samuel Fasso’s self-portraits
Our seniors study Robert Rauschenberg’s photographs at the MoMA
Henri Carter-Bresson, considered one of the world’s greatest photographers, said, “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.” Our seniors were encouraged to look for the smallest thing in a photo and asked to wonder why it had been included and what effect it had on the photograph. We looked at light falling through a sheet, the lines on a tower, various graphic shapes in Robert Rauschenberg’s work — with Cortijo asking guiding questions that made our seniors understand the many choices that go into making a photograph. We talked about Samuel Fasso’s self-portraits which have him taking on roles of his heroes like Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis, and his attempt to take on a larger political and activist role as an artist.
Seniors workshop their own photographs
Photography class, homework and all:
Taking photos outdoors and in the street
A lesson about backgrounds
After looking at photos by famous artists, our seniors got a lesson in taking better photographs using a smartphone. They learned about backgrounds, about lighting, angles, position of the photographer, focus on the subject and rudimentary editing. They also learned about the difference in portrait photography versus landscapes, tricks to modulate the brightness in iPhones and so on.
Cortijo, the artist-educator, also assigned our seniors “homework.” They were asked to take photos at home using their new found skills. When their homework assignments were displayed on the TV, the class enthusiastically critiqued the results – generously pointing out what worked in the photos as well as the flaws.
Our seniors listened avidly and responded with enthusiasm to this foray into photography as art. While it is true that modern technology has made taking a photograph easy, it was fascinating for seniors to see it as an art form, one that required more than just a point and click. We could see that the lessons had made a difference–many of the photos taken after the class showed that they were paying attention and practicing their skills!
Our seniors loved the tight focus on the little boy, the symmetry of the trees, the repetition of ochre color in this photograph. (c) Jayesh Patel.