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.
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.
This article quotes the report with minor changes. To read the full report please click here: Migrating from Bangladesh: Needs of Seniors