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)
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.
Garima Bakshi, a student with NYU’s journalism program, wrote an article that chronicled our member, Putul Chanda, a senior from Bangladesh and our center in Jamaica, known as the Desi Senior Center. In the article she tells the history, not just of our senior’s life, but that of Bangladesh’s protracted and traumatic fight for freedom. Putul Chanda is not the only one of our seniors who has been through the travails of war and displacement – several of the elders who attend the Desi Senior Center have had similar experiences. Chanda, however, was willing to talk about her life. The second and last installment of Bakshi’s article is reproduced. To read Part 1, click here. Both installments have been edited for length and clarity.
Putul Chanda, a senior at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, recounted her story of resistance and escape during the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971
Putul Chanda once told me that she was the only Hindu at the Desi Senior Center, and everyone else was Muslim. Aunty’s assertion of her Hindu identity made sense. She had come so close to forsaking her religious beliefs in order to protect her life that it was natural for her, so many decades later, to feel proud of the fact that she had managed to retain the faith she had grown up with.
“You Hindu or Muslim?”, she asked me. On learning that I too was a Hindu, her eyes lit up and she happily agreed to let me take a picture of her.
I never noticed any animosity between her and the other members of the Center. On the contrary, it seemed that Putul Aunty was very well liked and respected among her peers at the Center, and she treated them with equal respect. None of them could forget the genocide of ’71, but forty-five years later in a different country, their common Bengali identity united them more than their different religious identities divided them.
Putul felt relieved leaving her ancestral village. Once again, the journey proved treacherous. As they waded through the Ichchamati river, the river that, in Bengali literature, is said to grant wishes to passersby, Putul’s wish was to make it safely into India. The route was notorious for bandits and murderers who would rob not just money and jewelry, but also abduct women. The family was wealthy, so they were traveling with a darwan, a bodyguard, who swore that as long as he was alive, nothing would happen to any of them. They hardly slept, but on the rare occasions when they did, they had to sleep wherever they found open space; on a verandah, in a jungle, even in the marshes, always keeping an ear open for gunshots that would cause them to scatter.
Refugees from Bangladesh riding in a bullock cart. Photograph (c) by Raghu Rai for Magnum. For illustration purposes only
They survived on the fruits and wild berries they picked from the fields and forests they crossed along their journey. Sometimes, while crossing towns, they would manage to procure roti, dal, and vegetables, but towns also meant that there would be more soldiers. On these rare instances when they sat down to eat a proper meal, they would be interrupted by sounds of soldiers approaching, accompanied by gunshots and screams. Putul would discard her uneaten meal, and run as fast as she could to find a hiding spot.
By surviving off of the land this way, they managed to make it to Jessore, a town that bordered India on the west. India would only be a few days now, Putul told herself. From Jessore they afforded themselves the small luxury of setting out again in a bullock cart. Riding in the cart did not do any favors to Putul’s back, which had developed a constant pain. Traveling through rocky inner routes and rickety passageways to avoid the highway which would have considerable army presence, they soon had to abandon the cart and set off on foot once again.
Family members carrying an elder as they walk across the border from Bangladesh to India during the 1971 war. Photograph (c) Raghu Rai for Magnum. For illustration purposes only
As she made her way towards India, Putul, her stomach churning, saw the discarded babies and children that had died due to starvation and exhaustion, their bodies reeking of death, flies and vultures preying upon them. Old women and men that had been abandoned by their families because they were too weak to complete the grueling journey sat on the edges of paths, hoping for and awaiting their own deaths. “There is no Bangladeshi family in which at least one or two people didn’t go missing”, Putul said.
Mr. Hussain, who had been listening intently, nodded vigorously. He once told me that the reason he couldn’t talk freely at the Center was because he believed a particular staff member to be hailing from Pakistan. On being told that the staff member in question was actually from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, he opened up a great deal. He had been the Agricultural Secretary of the district of Dinaspur in Bangladesh, and considered himself an expert on the topic of the ’71 War, having fought in it himself.
Putul continued. She was thankful that dada’s (her elder brother) resolve to get the entire family across the border was firmer than a rock. Her mother was too old and feeble to carry out the exhausting journey on her own, so dada and Putul’s uncle broke off a branch from a bamboo tree, tore their clothes to create strips that they used to bind Putul’s mother’s arms and legs onto it, and then carried one side of the pole on each of their shoulders.
The exhausted family finally reached a small canal, that was, as they found out, close to the Indian border. Any glimmer of hope they had preserved instantly vanished when they were told that there were no boats to take them across. Hundreds of fleeing Bangladeshis had crossed that canal, and once the army found out, they stole all the boats that were being used to transport people across the water.
The banks of the small canal were not safe by nightfall because the soldiers would plunder camps and kidnap girls to rape and then kill them. Dada’s legs were painfully swollen and he, like Putul, was developing a painful and consistent back pain, but he vowed that he would only rest after reaching India.Putul had reached a stage of utter exhaustion and hopelessness, and was beginning to give up her inner resolve. Then they noticed the banana trees that lined the shores. Desperate to finish their trek to safe shores, Putul, dada, and the rest of their family feverishly broke off branches of banana trees and tied them together to make a raft.
They used any energy they had left to row to the opposite bank, but once they reached, they found that their struggle wasn’t over yet. Disembarking from the raft, Putul put her feet on the ground. As she tried to take the next step, she found her foot stuck; the more she would try to free it, the more it would sink. She was stuck in five feet of quicksand, and all she could see for miles and miles was more of the sucking mud. Putul wondered if the gods were playing with them, using them as mere pawns in a sadistic game.
At her vivid description, Shakhwat Hussain gasped, his eyes enlarged. Leaning in slightly, he admitted that his struggle was nowhere close to being as arduous as Putul’s, simply because he hailed from Dinaspur, a district very close to the Indian border. So, when the time came for him to flee Bangladesh, he simply crossed over into India, aided by his status as a student muktijhhoda.
Putul Aunty continued. They battled the kalamatti (black mud) for what seemed like a lifetime, Putul’s mother still being carried on a pole. Dehydrated and ravenous, they were all looking death in the eye, using their desperation to will themselves forward. Their bodies gave up, but their minds didn’t.
It was 10 PM when the kalamatti finally lessened. Putul no longer felt anything after overcoming an obstacle except an anticipation of the next hurdle. She could see little huts scattered around. She approached one of the huts and asked the man inside for a glass of water, the first she would have in days. She asked him, “India kauto door? How far is India?” The man waved his arms, demonstrating, “My kitchen is in Bangladesh, but the rest of the house is in India.” Pointing to a pillar that ran across his living room, he said, “That’s the border demarcation pillar right there. You’re safe now.”
Putul had never been more elated in her life.
She noticed a muktijhhoda camp nearby, and knew that she would be safe now. They reached the camp where they changed their damp clothes, and collapsed onto the bare ground, devoid of meals or mattress. When they woke up after what felt like days, they were greeted by sunshine and the beaming face of Putul’s younger brother, her chhotu dada.Chhotu dada had fled to India during the partition of ’47. He had met no one in the family since then, but they had been in correspondence through occasional letters and rare phone calls. When he heard that the rest of his family were trying to flee Bangladesh, he had searched all the mukti bahini camps in the area, until he saw the sleeping shapes of his family members in the camp at Boira, recognizable to him even after 25 years.
Gasping at this positive turn of events, Putul Aunty’s enthralled little audience cheered. Beaming, she rushed through the rest of her story.
Putul’s family went with chhotu dada to Krishnanagar in the Indian state of West Bengal, where the stashes of cash they had somehow managed to travel with were declared invalid. However, the Indian government gave them rations. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had decided that India would intervene in Pakistan’s civil war, supporting the Bangladeshi mukti bahini’s demands to create a new nation-state comprising of ethnic Bengalis.
Putul Aunty paused, and looked at me. “Thanks god to India, to Indira Gandhi. Because of India’s kindness so many people are alive today. Indira Gandhi’s name will be chiseled onto my heart till the day I die.”
Shakhwat affirmed this dramatic statement, “If it wasn’t for the alliance with India, with Indira Gandhi, we wouldn’t have gotten independence so fast, and crores more people would have died.” Like Putul, he said he would always be eternally grateful to India.
The Liberation Times announces the news of Pakistani surrender to Indian forces in Dacca on 15th December, 1972
The Pakistani forces had two territories to defend; West Pakistan from the Indian forces, and East Pakistan from Bengali rebels. Unable to match up to the combined forces of the Indians and the Bangladeshi rebels, on December 16, 1971, Pakistan officially surrendered, making East Pakistan the country that is now called the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Putul stayed with her family in Krishnanagar until the war was over. After the war, dada decided that it was time for her to finally finish her education. So, he went back to Bangladesh with her, and after she finished her education, arranged a marriage for her to a Hindu Bangladeshi freedom fighter. Her husband, like Hussain, was recognized by the Government of Bangladesh as a freedom fighter. After his death in 2004, the pension he received annually for his services to the country went to Putul, who will continue receiving it her entire life.
Having finished her story, Putul became silent, a satisfied look on her face, the cup beside her conspicuous due to the lack of tea inside it. Putul Aunty had gone through more life threatening adventures in the course of a few months than most people I knew had encountered in their entire lives. I felt humbled by her complete lack of self-awareness – she didn’t seem to think that what she had gone through was unusual in any way- as well as honored that she had decided to share her story with me.
I felt like I had to say something. “So, what made you shift to New York?”, I asked both Shakhwat and Putul. Hussain, currently residing with his son and his family in Queens, is here with his wife for lung therapy. He had severe lung and kidney problems, and was told that the best treatment would be available in New York. He might go back once he has fully recovered, but he loves New York and the lifestyle it affords, so he might stay on here with his family. Putul Aunty came to New York in 2012, to live with her daughter.
Currently, she is considered a refugee in India, a muktijhhoda in Bangladesh, and an immigrant in New York. She likes it here, but it’s just not like home.