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.
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.
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.
For 75 years the Voice of America – VOA has been the the official news source of the United States government and provides news and information in 47 languages to a weekly audience of more than 236.6 million people on 5 continents around the world. Last week they did a multi-media segment on India Home.
“Among New York City residents over the age of 65, the immigrant population accounts for 49.5 percent, up from 38 percent in 2000, and growing. Facing language and cultural barriers, increased isolation, and higher levels of poverty than their native-born counterparts, the rapid expansion has taken its toll on both immigrants and the small, cash-strapped organizations that serve them….
“But Lakshman Kalasapudi, deputy director of India Home, says there is a misconception that South Asian immigrants who arrive as older adults are “fully taken care of” when they live with their children.
“This financial dependency kind of creates family tensions, especially when the seniors are living in overcrowded situations,” Kalasapudi says. “There becomes a real breakdown in the family structure and it really profoundly negatively affects the seniors’ mental health.”
“India Home is a secular organization that depends heavily on community donations and discretionary funding from local council members. It confronts social isolation and loneliness among South Asian elders. But it does so by partnering with existing centers, including Jamaica Muslim Center.”
To read more click here: https://www.voanews.com/a/aging-new-york-immigrants-confront-shortage-of-culturally-appropriate-services/3959423.html
A Know Your Rights poster from IDP (Immigrant Defense Project) that we used in our trainings
What do you when officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) come to your home? If you are stopped in the street by police and asked for your immigration status? What are your rights as an immigrant in these perilous times? These and other questions were part of a series of KYR (Know Your Rights) trainings that India Home conducted with our elders, almost all of whom are immigrants to the country. Most of our seniors are citizens, or, having immigrated here on family quotas, hold green cards.
However, after the change in federal administration, they have heard rumors about ICE raids and have questions about immigration status. There is much rumor and conjecture and fear. India Home staff have in the past few months undergone KYR Immigration Information Training and were prepared to pass on the knowledge. We also brought in Cyrus Mehta, a well known lawyer, and Professor Alina Das from NYU Law School on different occasions to inform and reassure our elders of their rights as immigrants.
The message we wanted to get across was simple enough: 1. Everyone has rights under the constitution of the United States and it’s important . 2. You have the right to remain silent 3. You have the right to an attorney and to see a warrant and so on.
Cyrus Mehta, an immigration lawyer, speaks to our elders at the Desi Senior Center about their immigration rights
At Sunnyside Community Center, India Home staff who had training, chose to create a skit of sorts where some volunteers enacted an ICE Raid. Some were ICE officers and some were immigrants and when “officers” asked the “residents” to open up, they practiced saying things like “I choose to remain silent,” and “I would like to talk to my attorney.”
Cyrus Mehta, an immigration lawyer distributed flyers at the Desi Senior Center emphasized his message that all people in the United States, even the undocumented have rights and patiently answered the many questions from our seniors.
Alina Das is an Associate Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law, where she co-teaches and co-directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic. She and her clinic students represent immigrants and community organizations in litigation and advocacy to advance immigrant rights locally and across the country. Professor Das visited our Desi Senior Center in February, and her students demonstrated an ICE raid and the correct responses in such situations.
At our Richmond Hill location, we invited the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) to come in and discuss rights for immigrant New Yorkers and reassure everything that the city is committed to being a sanctuary city for all. MOIA representatives further stressed the need for IDNYC and how beneficial it is for immigrants.
Prof. Alina Das and her clinic students came to Desi Senior Center to talk to elders about their rights as immigrants
To evaluate the learning, India Home staff asked the elders to repeat, a few days later, what had been taught. They repeated the main points of the teaching. A lesson well learned, perhaps, and an useful one at that!
Whenever I think of Holi and our seniors, rangeen is a word that comes to mind. In Hindi it means “colorful” — and it’s often applied to describe not just things, but attitudes. Someone is called rangeen because he or she is enthusiastic and excited about living, and a happy generous minded individual.
Our seniors love to dance
Our seniors love Holi and look forward to it every year. On March 13th as is customary, we decorated the center and brought colored powders for our seniors to smear on each other. This year we also had a singer who delighted our seniors by singing Bollywood songs of yesteryear. Our seniors danced, sang along, and anointed each other (and us) with color. They also shared the joy of the festival with their American friends at Sunnyside Community Services by making a presentation, and teaching them to dance the Garba, a Gujarati folk dance.
Many of them also shared memories of celebrating Holi in their past, some reaching all the way back 50-60 years to their childhood’s.
“Some pranksters would load up ox drawn carts with large drums filled with colored water and drive them around town. They would stop at strategic points and dowse passersby in red and green water, and the townspeople would retaliate by drenching the guys on the cart too. It was such great fun–I used to wait anxiously for the day to come.” Dinesh Patel.
India Home’s seniors taught their non-Indian friends to dance the garba, a Gujarati folk dance
A visitor joined in the fun
This year, we were also joined by Rachel Pardoe of the New York Community Trust, a grant giving organization. She too was promptly pulled into the festivities by our seniors. Remember what i said about them being rangeen?
“When I was first married and went to my husband’s home as a young bride, Holi was such a big deal. My husband and his brothers would pick me up and drop me screaming into a tank full of colored water.” Neeru Hanskoty.
A fit older man in a dapper suit suit turns to his wife and sings a few lines from a romantic song in Hindi, ” Life is nothing but your story and mine,” he croons. She laughs, almost shy, as he puts his arms around her. As he continues to speak of his love and their life together, they both begin to cry.
The couple in the video are Dinesh and Kusumben Parmar, active members of India Home. They are the stars in a video campaign created for AARP by Next Day Better, a media company that specializes in telling stories about Asian American communities.
His goal is two-fold says Ryan Letada, CEO and Co-Founder. On the one hand they want to bring immigrant Asian American and Pacific Islander stories and histories into the mainstream; on the other they want to “build intergenerational/inter-relationship understanding and empathy to strengthen and unify families.”
Next Day Better asked Dinesh and Kusumben to share their “love origin story” as a way to highlight their family’s history in America, a history that is shared by so many other immigrants to this country. Immigrants like Dinesh and Kusumben know that their stories go beyond mere romance to encompass an unconditional love that is expressed through courage, long struggle and sacrifice for the sake of family. Dinesh poignantly sums up the stories of so many new comers to America when he describes the couple’s life together as a ” journey of sacrifice, sorrow and happiness. ”
Watch the video for more on Dinesh and Kusumben’s poignant love story.
Everett Lo leads the Regional Network for the White House Initiative of Asian American Pacific Islander that has over 33 agencies under it’s purview.
Jan 11, 2017, Jamaica– India Home hosted a Listening Session with the White House Initiative on Asian and Pacific Islander Americans at the Desi Senior Center in Jamaica, Queens, NY. Everett Lo, as the lead for the Regional Network for WHIAAPI, helped India Home put together the Listening Session which brought together an unprecedented number of representatives of federal, state, and local government. These agencies included the Administration for Community Living (ACL), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS), the US Department of Labor (USDOL), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and more. The aim of the Listening Session was two-fold: on the one hand it was to inform our Bangladeshi elders about the range of government services available to them. On the other, it allowed the representatives on the panel to hear directly from our elders and understand their unique concerns. An interpreter translated their remarks into Bengali so the elders could follow along.
Each representative spoke about the scope of their agency and its abilities to meet the needs of our elders: for instance, Shyconia Burden of USCIS talked about waivers that are available to elders taking the citizenship test and warned them about the dangers of handing original documents to unauthorized agents. Dennis Romero of SHAMSA discussed the support services available to combat addictions to prescription medicines.
Elders Get Answers
The representatives spent the second hour answering questions from the 70+ elders gathered in the room. A large majority of questions had to do with immigration and citizenship. Our clients wanted to know more about the citizenship test, the rules for affidavits of support and so on. Medicaid and the ACA was another topic that gave rise to a lot of questions. Some common themes emerged. Our elders were concerned with access across the board: whether it was access to language, health care, information in a way they could understand or transportation and metro cards.
India Home’s Desi Senior Center provides congregate meals, ESL and exercise classes, cultural activities and social connection to over 150 elders a day, three times a week. The elders we serve face unique challenges: 74% of all Bangladeshis in New York City were born outside the USA and 53% have limited English proficiency. Anecdotal and case management evidence tells us that some of them are unfamiliar with American systems. Many elders struggle to understand how health insurance or the subway works.
Panel of speakers brought in by the White House Initiative for Asian American Pacific Islanders
Shyconia Burden of USCIS got a lot of questions from our speakers. (right) Ms. Mahbooba Kabita, interpreted remarks into Bengali
Putting a Face to the Issues
The panel was an opportunity for our immigrant elders to see American democracy in action and understand that the government is not some remote entity, but made up of people who, in theory at least, work for them. Our elders got an opportunity to meet the agencies which make the decisions that directly impact their lives. For the representatives at the table it was a chance to put faces to and connect with the clients they make critical decisions about, and understand their unique culture and circumstances.
Maganbhai Chavda is tall and thin, a white-haired gentleman who towers over his wife Kamuben’s tiny bird-like figure. Kamuben, in turn, is the one you will see dancing the vigorous garba at every opportunity. The husband and wife, both 82, are unmistakable fixtures at India Home’s Sunnyside Community Center location. They were born in 1935 and have been married for 63 years, sharing a long, eventful life–one that has seen them journeying from abject poverty in a tiny village in Gujarat in India to a life in New York that is filled with success and generosity. The couple spoke to India Home together one afternoon, trading stories, completing each others sentences, refreshing each other’s memory.
Growing up during India’s Independence struggle:
Kamuben says: “I was 13 years old when India became free and we would stay up night after night because the government said they would announce India’s Independence. Finally, we were told that India was free. All the kids ran out into the street cheering. We had steel plates and we began banging on them with sticks and shouting –we went around the city in a big parade.” Her husband, Maganbhai, has his own memories, although less dramatic: “I remember that there was a building in my village that was built after Mahatma Gandhi-ji visited in 1932. He came through our village on his way to the Salt March in 1932. We children would talk about him all the time.”
“Every day was a crisis of poverty.”
Maganbhai’s parents were field hands. They were illiterate and worked the land, doing hard physical labor. “We children could only eat if our parents worked with their bodies,” he explains. As a result of his family’s difficulties his education suffered. ” When I was in the 7th grade I left school. I was an excellent student, first class first, but I had to get a job because we had no money. I couldn’t afford to go to college or pay the boarding fees to stay in town. I became a teacher and worked for two years. I didn’t like being a teacher, so I joined the postal service in the village. I had six people working for me. I stayed on in that job for 30 years, and only left it to come to the United States.
Even in 1953, her father-in-law was a feminist
Kamuben studied up to SSC in Baroda and then trained as a teacher. After marriage she moved with Maganbhai to his tiny village of Borsad in Gujarat where they started living with his parents and siblings. “I became a teacher and taught primary school from 1-7th grade. I liked teaching the small children in 1st grade. The kids loved me and everyone gave me a lot of respect. Some parents would come to the school and insist that they wanted their child to be in my class.” Kamuben at one point had 14 assistants working under her and she retired as the Principal of the school after teaching for 30 years.
Yet it’s the family that she married into that she reminisces about the most. Her father-in-law was illiterate and a farm worker, but she says, the way she was treated was unusual for the era. “My father-in-law was a gem. When I got married I was very delicate and my father-in-law wouldn’t let me go to get water from the public tap. He would come to help. There were so many restrictions for women in those days. They were to be veiled, they couldn’t laugh or talk in front of their inlaws or even wear shoes. My father -in-law said, “Wear your shoes.” He was an enlightened person, his attitude was so modern. He always said, “do something new, leave these outdated, ancient rituals.” We used to play with my father-in-law, a game with cowrie-shells. He didn’t want us to be veiled — he put an end to all that. People in the village used to laugh at us say mean things. They’d tease my in-laws and say that they were letting me do whatever I wanted because I was educated. After a while, though, following our family’s ideas, even villagers also changed their attitude towards women.”
“My father died without a good doctor, so I vowed to make my sons into doctors”
Maganbhai and Kamuben are sorrowful when they recall the day his father died. “We had no money to treat him or take him to a hospital in Ahmedabad city. So he died in the village. Maganbhai was changed by his father’s death. “That day I decided I will make at least one son a doctor,” he said said. “Fortunately, I had three sons and they were all intelligent and they had our support,” he says. Today, not one, but all three of the couple’s sons are medical doctors–one is a radiologist, the others practice ER-Medicine and pulmonary medicine. The couple are justifiably proud of their sons and daughter. “They sent us on a tour of Europe, they sent us to South East Asia,” they said, each one talking over the other in their excitement.
Coming to America
Kamuben’s sister immigrated first to the U.S. and then sponsored the couple. Their children were grown and had done MBA’s in India, but with typical drive and enterprise, they studied further and became doctors. Their only daughter is an accountant. Maganbhai, even after spending his entire career in the post office, decided to continue working in the US and operated a Lotto machine in his brother-in-law’s store. “I started at $3.50 an hour in 1985,” he says. “When I finally listened to my children and stopped working, I was making $7.00 an hour.”
The Goddess of Charity
Kamuben and Maganbhai have been in the US for 30 years. They are comfortably off and their children are doing well. Yet they have never forgotten the days when they weren’t so fortunate. “Everyday was a crisis without enough money,” Kamuben says. Now they sponsor kids who are smart but may not have the means to go to college or get graduate degrees. They sent a friend’s young son to London to study. If someone wants money, we give it to them. “Because we have seen what happens when you have no money, we help anyone who needs it. We’ve helped so many families, helped their kids come up in the world. Even though I was in the village, I would cook for poor kids who didn’t have anything to eat. I’d feel sad for them.” Maganbhai teases his wife: ” When we go to India, all our relatives call her the “Goddess of Charity.”
So what’s the secret of their happiness?
The couple is remarkably active even though they are both 82 years old. Maganbhai waves his hand: “Don’t worry, be happy. Worrying too much makes you sick,” he says. Kamuben nods: “We don’t have any illnesses. I say, eat, drink, be happy, help others and don’t be selfish with your money. If you have enough to eat, feed others. Everyday I pray that god gives me the means to help others.”
On India Home
“We come here, we see our friends, our brother-in-law is here – we have a good time.”
India Home’s seniors are learning computer skills, many for the first time
India Home’s Desi Senior Center is now offering computer classes to senior men and women who want to learn to handle technology. Mr. Palash Piplu, a volunteer, teaches the class on Thursdays. For now, Palash is familiarizing our seniors, many of whom have never touched a computer, with basic computer skills, such as how to open a file and save it, or how to browse the internet.
A. Mahbubul Latif is happy that he is learning something new and wants to learn all about the computer. “I can do my own work, take care of my own things,” he said.
India Home started these classes because there is a strong desire among our seniors to get in touch with the world. As Latif said, “Everything is on computers now…but when I ask at home to teach me computers, nobody helps me.”
Learning the unfamiliar technology don’t come not easy for these elders, but they persist. They are determined to learn the intricacies of computer use, even though, as Latif acknowledged, “We didn’t practice computers in our time.”
It has been heartening to see how the women at the center have been at the forefront of the classes, encouraging each other to participate.
Rabeya Khanom is 67 years old but wants to be always learning. At the beginning of the class, she said, “It was difficult to catch up,” and wished there was a “shortcut.” But she says she’s “learning this from my own interest. It is better to be learning something than sitting at home doing nothing,” she said. She also doesn’t want to be left behind. “Everybody has computer in our home, internet too. I want to use email and the internet,” she said.
While many of the seniors have never used a computer, several others have worked and retired in the US. They are taking to classes to update their skills. Farida Talukdar worked for 23 years in the Social Services department in New York City and says she has a basic knowledge of computers. But now, she said, she “was getting interested in Word, Excel and the Internet. ” With the instructor Palash’s teaching, these programs, were “becoming much easier now,” she said.
It is a well known fact that students learn better with support from their families. Our adult learners are being encouraged by their children. For Ms. Khanum, there’s an additional incentive to master computers: “My daughter said if I learn computers, she will buy a computer for me,” she said, smiling from ear to ear.
Funding for the 14 unit computer lab was generously provided by Department for the Aging and Commissioner Dr. Donna Corrado.
(With additional reporting from Shah Afroditi Panna)