Possibilities: Creative Aging through the Arts

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.

Writing Workshops

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.

 

 

Columbia University’s Exceeding Expectations project honors India Home’s Chandrakant Sheth

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.

To read Chandrant Sheth’s story and that of 19 others please click here: www.exceedingexpectations/Chandrakant

A still from Chandrakant’s story on Columbia Aging Center’s  Exceeding Expectations (Photo by Heather Clayton Colangelo)

 

Sixty-six and still a caregiver: Bharti Parikh faces the future



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.

Multi-talented

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.

Celebrating across cultures : Indian, Nepali elders share stories at Rubin Museum’s Ganesh event

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.

 

 

 

 

All photographs are by Jane Stein

In a collaboration with MoMA, our seniors learn about the art of photography

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.

India Home’s Ladies Rock the Rubin Block Party

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.

Archive of Memory: Bangladeshi Seniors Document Their Stories in a Memoir Writing Workshop

By Ashwak Fardoush

Ashwak Fardoush is a writer, writing coach and teaching artist, who recently facilitated the Writing Workshop for older adults at India Home’s Desi Senior Center. 


The room buzzed with anticipation. The smell of cooked chickpeas and onion lentil fritters served to the guests still lingered in the air. Children’s cries rang out in the background. Amidst the noise, Salema Khatun took the stage. She recited her poem, “Shadhinota” (translated as “Independence”), alluding to the Liberation War of 1971 in Bangladesh. I felt proud as I watched her read her poem to the audience.

On the evening of May 19, 2017, we were at the Culminating Event for a Writing Workshop organized by India Home for its members at the Desi Senior Center. The event was also a Pre-Ramadan Celebration and a happy and proud occasion for our members. This was the open mic portion of the event

Members of the Writing Workshop at the Desi Senior Center

Members of the Writing Workshop at the Desi Senior Center

“I had put away my writing for twenty years. …. But I have written four poems in your class.”

Salema Khatun crafted that poem over the course of a few weeks. She had attended a writing workshop that I facilitated at the Desi Senior Center. Inspired by a prompt at a workshop session, she wrote a poem that she finished at home, writing a few lines at a time in between her household chores, showing me the progress along the way, and adding the final two lines because she wanted the poem to be a sonnet. Just the day before the event, Salema Khatun told me, “I had put away my writing for twenty years. After my husband’s death, I took on the full responsibility of my family. But I have written four poems in your class. Look what you have done for me.”

Seniors tell their stories through poems and memoir

Salema Khatun was one of the eight participants who were part of a bilingual memoir writing workshop* at the Desi Senior Center. This workshop was designed to help seniors tell their stories. This pilot program was a collaborative effort, making the phrase “it takes a village” truer than ever. The staff from India Home and the Desi Senior Center—especially Lakshman Kalasapudi, Nargis Ahmed and Meera Venugopal—worked tirelessly to make sure the seniors had a great writing experience.

As I heard Salema Khatun’s voice rise and fall, I remembered the first day of the writing workshop. It was a Thursday morning. I was setting up the classroom in one corner of the prayer room. Some were still praying on the other side of the room. I arranged the chairs in a circle and laid out the attendance sheet and the writing supplies on a chair. I had thought about the content and the structure of the workshop for the past two weeks. I even had a bare-boned lesson plan for the first session. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t plan out all the sessions. I was not teaching these participants. Instead, I was holding the space for the participants to tell their stories—stories that danced inside their bodies, that rested inside their eyes, that settled on their skin. I simply needed to let these stories surface on the page. While facilitating the workshop was not like any other teaching experience I had in the past—the participants were a few decades older than me, and the sessions were conducted entirely in Bengali—the advice I gave myself remained the same: I must keep my heart open, stay present and be curious.

Writing prompts and stories that unfolded against the backdrop of history

Quamrun Nahar reads her piece at the Culminating Event on May 19, 2017

Quamrun Nahar reads her piece at the Culminating Event on May 19, 2017

There were eight participants who made up the core group: Md. Hoque, Md. Mokbul Hossain, Rafiqul Islam, Salema Khatun, Haque Mohammad, Quamrun Nahar, Md. Abu Sayeed, and Farida Talukdar. I did not know what to expect each session. By the second session, I stopped bringing a thorough plan. The participants were vivacious, creative, mischievous, intelligent, wise, and in awe of life. We would always begin with a writing prompt from my plan, but then the session would unfold in ways I could never predict. We would write spontaneously. Soon, I became adept at reading what the group wanted in that moment in order to serve them and their writing.
Each session the participants excavated memories from their long, rich, vibrant lives and shaped them into poems and personal essays. When I closed my eyes, I could see the writers leaning over their marble notebooks, and scribbling away. Sometimes we would travel to far-flung places or go deep within ourselves. Sometimes personal stories would unfold against the backdrop of history.

At times, the participants tried to write out a decade of their life during a session. Sometimes, I would ask the participants to scrawl a word on an index card, fold it and put it inside a mason jar. Then, I would ask a participant to pick a word out of the jar randomly and the group would write about that word. The first word picked out of the jar was “baba” (translated as “father”). Writers wrote about their love stories, their childhood friendships, and their son’s letters back home.

Participants eager to share their writing 

Every session was memorable in some way. Once, I remembered seeing Md. Hoque writing in his notebook a few steps away from the class. Since the session was about to start, I gently asked him to come inside. He nodded, but his head was still buried in the notebook. A few minutes later, he entered the classroom and announced that he had just finished writing a poem. He not only addressed this poem to another participant, Md. Mokbul Hossain, but he also challenged his peer to respond back in the form of a poem. Md. Mukbul Hossain was deemed as the poet of the group. Even before the workshop, he had a moleskin notebook with poems written in his beautiful penmanship. He once showed me a poem he wrote in his notebook. The first line was a question a stranger posed him on his walk. He told me that he carried his notebook with him so that he could write down any detail, mundane or not, that can turn into a poem someday. Needless to say, Md. Mukbul Hossain managed to cobble together words to pen a poem to respond to Md. Hoque’s friendly challenge in class that day.

Md. Mokbul Hossain's Poem, "Potichhobi"

Md. Mokbul Hossain’s Poem, “Potichhobi”

Abu Sayeed was another participant in the workshop. He took two trains and a bus to travel from Brooklyn to the senior center in Queens. Before the first day of class, he told me of his interest in the writing workshop. He shared that his life was full of “korun” (tragic) stories and wondered if it was okay for him to write about those stories in the workshop. “Yes,” I said. “Life is full of joy and sorrow. Sounds like you have lived and have stories to tell! Please come and write with us.” So, he did. Md. Abu Sayeed would read his stories out loud in a voice that would tremble and crack at times. We would all listen, understanding the gravity of the moment and our role in it.

I was surprised by how eager everyone was to share their writing with each other. The ink would still be fresh on the page, our head would still reel from the memories we had dredged up on the page. Yet, the participants were ready to share their writing immediately. Quamrun Nahar read about scaling a tree as a child and falling down from it one day when she was stung by bees. She was carried to the kitchen where her grandmother rubbed garam masala paste all over her body. In a similar vein, Farida Talukdar often shared her anecdotes. We rarely made past the first writing prompt. The pieces people shared after the first prompt would inspire others to share their personal stories or debate passionately about a topic that surfaced in someone’s writing. We found ourselves discussing how in-laws’ relationship should be toward their children’s spouses, the struggles with upholding the Bengali language and culture in the United States, and the political climate in Bangladesh.

Teacher as Witness
Nancy Agabian, an author and founder of Heightening Stories, told me that the participants were “lucky to have [me] as their teacher and a witness.” That word, “witness” was the summation of my role. These participants contain a lifetime of memories and the workshop became a space where these writers got to share their testimonies—tales suffused with pain, joy, love, loss, dreams and despair—and were witnessed with respect and camaraderie. Md. Hoque wrote so poignantly on the last day of the workshop: “will we remember the stories of the three sisters and five brothers, a family meeting for a literature class lasting but for a short while?”

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Council Member Daneek Miller and his wife, were among the guests of honor at the celebration. CM Miller handed out certificates to seniors who participated in the workshop

At the event, I looked to the stage once more. Salema Khatun had finished reading her poem. She paused for a moment and looked out at the audience. The crowd broke out into applause. Salema Khatun walked off stage. I smiled and then closed my eyes: I imagined the participants pulling out their marble notebooks and writing away with their ball point pens, putting one word after the next word after the next to tell all the stories they held inside of them until they were spent, until they were empty, until they were fully satisfied.

*This Writing Workshop was funded in part by Poets & Writers with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

 

You can read the full publication of the writings by clicking here.

Everyone is Divine: India Home partners with the Rubin Museum to celebrate Vaisakhi

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India Home’s program at the Rubin Museum was featured on the Museum’s blog.

Creative aging…

India Home believes in providing creative aging programs that offer opportunities for our seniors to actively express themselves creatively, socialize with their peers while learning new skills,  and engage in cultural performances.

…and a partnership with the Rubin Museum.

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Sharan Bir Kaur led the crowd in a Kundalini chant

 

As part of this creative aging effort we have forged a partnership with the prestigious Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in Manhattan. In our role as Community Partner, we’ve presented programs related to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and Mahavir Jayanthi.

This is our third event

On April 15, 2017, we presented our third program at the Museum: a celebration of the Sikh festival, Vaisakhi, traditionally a rite that marks the end of the harvest season in India. We hosted the event along  the Sikh Cultural Center, one of the biggest Gurudwaras, or Sikh place of worship, in New York City.

This is how our program was described on the Rubin Museum’s blog.

Sikhs believe that every individual is filled with divine potential. At a time when racial and religious tension is high, New York Sikhs continue to celebrate their faith and values of equality, even when occasionally faced with senseless discrimination. At the Museum, Sikh and non-Sikh community members came together to celebrate Sikh culture and participate in the OM Lab.

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Usha Mehta, a senior from India Home, enjoyed recording her voice in the OM Lab.

Twenty seniors from India Home attended and some of them enjoyed the opportunity to make use of the OM lab’s recording booth and “offer their OMs and join thousands of others in the chant that will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition.

Our elders enthusiastically participated  in a new experience, when Sharan Bir Kaur, a Kundalini yoga expert, led them and the rest of the audience in a short chanting meditation using the mantra “Wahe Guru” which is the Gurumantra or seed mantra in Sikhism.

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Seniors from India Home enjoyed being part the sold out event

 

 

 

Jagir Singh Bains, an elder from the Sikh Cultural Center, further enlightened the audience with  a short presentation about the basic tenets of Sikhism and the meaning behind the symbols of the faith, like the turban, the beard, and the kada (the steel bangle).

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Manpreet Kaur taught the crowd to bhangra!

The night ended on a happy note with everyone dancing the bhangra! To read more click this link to go to the Rubin Muesum’s blog

 

India Home featured in Feet in Two Worlds podcast

Last year India Home was approached by John Rudolf, the Executive Producer of the Feet In Two Worlds podcast. The podcast is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs housed at the New School. “For the past 10 years, Feet in 2 Worlds has brought the work of immigrant and ethnic media journalists from communities across the U.S. to public radio and the web,” according to their website. Rudolf introduced his student-reporters, Sruti Penumetsa and Alex Wynn, who were interested time in making a podcast about India Home. Sruthi and Alex came by and spent time in our satellite centers at Sunnyside and Kew Gardens, talking to our South Asian elders, and blending in so well, that half the time we even forgot they were around.

Now the results are in – the work Penumetsa and Wynn created is up on the FiTW website. It features the voices and opinions of many of India Home’s members. Our members share intimate details of their lives, talk about the loneliness and isolation that accompanies aging, and how they deal with it, their yearning for their homeland, and the comfort they find in their friends at India Home. What emerges is an audio portrait of a vibrant, close knit community that has adjusted to the vicissitudes of aging in their own inimitable way. Click the link to listen to the podcast here: https://feetintwoworlds.podbean.com or click below:

I Feel Like I’m Home – The Fi2W Podcast

India Home’s Fall Fundraiser: Music, dancing and future plans

India Home held its annual Fall Luncheon and Fundraiser at Five Star Banquet Hall in Long Island City, Queens on Saturday October 1st. We were celebrating a year of steady growth and expansion, of course, but the well-attended event was also a huge thank you to all our friends, supporters and partners.

The celebration opened with a Hindustani classical music recital by performers from the Chhandayan Center for Indian Music. Our wonderful members from India Home performed a vibrant garba dance and we screened a short video about our Desi Senior Center. India Home was lauded for its work by both Councilmembers, Barry Grodenchik and Rory Lancman who attended. India Home honored Councilmember Rory I. Lancman, who has been a steadfast friend and supporter of our efforts. He was recognized as “a distinguish leader for South Asian older adults”. In his speech he said that India Home was providing vital culturally competent services to a growing community of seniors and the trust and experience we have in the community is an integral part of our organization.

Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi urged the elected officials and community leaders to work with her on trying to get a permanent facility for our seniors. “India Home needs a home,” she said, to cheers from the audience. A silent auction was held for painting donated by artists including the late Hario Sajnani. We were also happy to introduce two new board members to the attendees, namely, Ali Najmi, a prominent lawyer who ran for New York City Council and was endorsed by the New York Times in 2015, and Mukund Mehta, a former Senior Tax Attorney with Caltex and a Moot Court Judge with NYU Law.

The fundraiser was a successful event allowing us to raise critically needed funds for India Home. This support helps India Home tremendously as we begin to expand into new program areas and activities. Here’s to another successful year for India Home!

Please stay tuned for more photos in the coming weeks.

India Home's Board & Staff welcoming our new Board Members

India Home’s Board & Staff welcoming our new Board Members

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