By Nibras Karim, Hunter College Asian American Studies Program Intern
The Captain Tilly Park in Jamaica, is named after Captain George H. Tilly who was a local son of a prominent Jamaica family who was killed while fighting in the American war in the Philippines in 1899. The park is a local destination for Jamaica residents to relax and enjoy public space and greenery in their neighborhood. Situated on nine acres, the park is in the heart of Jamaica and a peaceful getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.
On September 21, 2017, as part of our effort to help with the health, fitness, and mental wellbeing of the seniors of our Desi Senior Center, we took them out for a change of environment and had them try some new activities they hadn’t done before. The seniors really enjoyed the scenery that the Captain Tilly Park had to offer such as the ducks and Canadian geese swimming about. They also enjoyed the picnic we had brought. They did their exercises outside and enjoyed the fresh air.
One highlight of the day was when they played games like carrom board and ludu. Carrom is a “strike and pocket” table game similar to billiards. Instead of using cue sticks and billiard balls, carrom is played by using different sized and colored pieces called carrom men. Some of the seniors were very passionate about winning the carrom board games. Prizes were given out to the winners of the games.
After they ate their picnic, they sang Bengali folk songs, solo and in chorus with others. Everyone was very supportive of each other regardless of their singing abilities. In the end of the picnic, all the seniors thanked the director of our Desi Senior Center Dilafroz Nargis Ahmed for making this wonderful picnic a possibility.
Last year, Narendra Butala, a long time member of India Home, was facing a health crisis. He had been feeling breathless for a while. His blood pressure would drop suddenly and he would sweat profusely.
Still, he was afraid to go to the cardiologist because his brother had got a pacemaker in 2004 and had passed away shortly after. Even as he worried about the condition of his heart, he heard from one of his relatives. Pacemaker technology had changed, she said, and urged him to get a check-up. Finally, in July, a few months after his 78th birthday, Butala, took the plunge and went to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, and got a pacemaker inserted. “I was home after two hours,” he said. “They monitor my heart from the hospital, remotely.”
South Asian seniors like Mr. Narendra Butala (left) will benefit from a new bill introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal that targets heart health in the community
Mr. Butala, who emigrated from India 20 years ago, lives an active lifestyle, and is a life-long vegetarian who doesn’t smoke. At first glance, he would not appear to be a typical candidate for heart disease. However, there is one indicator that increases his risk exponentially – his South Asian descent. Several recent studies have found that all over the world, individuals of South Asian descent account for 60 percent of heart disease patients. A study conducted by the University of California San Francisco found that in the United States, South Asians have the highest death rate from heart disease compared to other ethnic groups. Other research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, discovered an even more troubling trend. Among people of normal BMI (Body Mass Index), South Asians were twice as likely as whites to have risk factors for heart disease.
BMI, a height-to-weight ratio, is used to determine whether someone is overweight or obese. Body Mass Index and weight are often the first numbers doctors consider. Many doctors may not screen for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes if they are within normal range, but what the study indicated was that when it came to South Asians, even patients of normal weight were showing risk factors for heart disease.
Fortunately, someone in the federal government has been paying attention to these concerning numbers. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) introduced in the House in late July a bill aimed at the issue of high levels of heart disease in the South Asian American community. Called the “South Asian Heart Health Awareness and Research Act,” the bill garnered bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by 18 other members of Congress, including Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina).
In an email to NBC News, Jayapal said that she introduced the bill because she thinks the US, needs, “to take action by expanding funding for research and spreading awareness targeting [these] communities. We’ll save lives and reach a better understanding of heart health that will benefit all Americans.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) sponsored the “South Asian Heart Health Awareness and Research Act,” in the House of Representatives.
NBC News reported that the bill would “establish grants at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health to provide information about heart health to South Asian-American communities and fund medical research on cardiovascular disease in South Asians in the U.S. The bill would also fund grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the promotion of better South Asian heart health nutrition.”
India Home, which runs the largest South Asian senior center in the North-East, has made its own modest contribution to improve heart health among the older South Asian adults it serves. Regular yoga, meditation and Ayurveda is taught at its centers along with holistic and healthful ways to exercise and maintain their physical and mental wellness. Moreover, in partnership with NYU Langone’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health (CSAAH), India Home has introduced its members to a number of educational projects like Keep On Track / REACH FAR.
Eighty seniors from India Home took part in Reach Far, a project in collaboration with NYU Langone, which taught community volunteers to monitor blood pressure for better heart health.
This project trained 26 volunteers at India Home to monitor blood pressure as part of a Community Health Assessment. Over 80 Bengali seniors from India Home’s Desi Senior Center participated in the project. Another project helped to disseminate nutrition information with culturally and linguistically adapted brochures in Bengali and Hindi and taught seniors how to measure their food portions and try new nutrition strategies.
As for Mr. Butala, he’s back at India Home’s Sunnyside center, being the first to volunteer to push the lunch cart, as usual. “I’m feeling fine,” he said the other day. “The doctor said I can do all activities.”
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.
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.
The Exceeding Expectations project, Chandrakant Sheth and India Home was also given a two page spread in India Abroad, the oldest newspaper in North America catering to the South Asian diaspora.
The project’s goal is to challenge people’s expectations of growing old and to present different possibilities beyond the extreme images of frailty and skydiving, as we like to say. – Heather Clayton Colangelo
Heather Clayton Colangelo found India Home’s very own Chandrakant Sheth and shadowed him for a year, going to his home, meeting his family and friends, and visiting us and his friends at India Home’s Sunnyside Center. We interviewed her about the project and what sparked her interest in Chandrakant Sheth:
What made you choose Chandrakant Sheth as a subject?
We spent several months trying to find 20 people all in their 80s that represented the diversity of New York City. We wanted people in all different living situations, with different interests, from different socioeconomic backgrounds and from different neighborhoods. The key piece was that each person needed to be seeking purpose in some way, to have a goal that they were trying to accomplish. The project’s goal is to challenge people’s expectations of growing old and to present different possibilities beyond the extreme images of frailty and skydiving, as we like to say.
I heard about India Home because of the opening of the Desi Senior Center right around the time we were looking for participants for the project, and were intrigued. As a then-resident of Astoria, I was also hoping to find someone suitable to follow in Queens as I wanted to represent the borough I dearly love. I contacted Lakshman at India Home and he recommended Chandrakant to me. He described Chandrakant as someone warm and genuine, with a thirst for learning, which made him a perfect fit for our project. 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.
You’ve been shadowing him for a year. How did your relationship develop?
The very first time I sat down with Chandrakant he was incredibly candid and genuine. He expressed enthusiasm for the goals of Exceeding Expectations and wanted to share his story as a way to help other people facing aging with limited models. I believe we talked for more than 3 hours that first day. Throughout the project he continued to graciously open up his heart and life to me, sharing his poetry, introducing me to family members, bringing me along on trips to India Home, and feeding me delicious food at his home. I feel grateful to have learned so much both professionally and personally from him.
What has the reaction to Exceeding Expectations been?
The reaction has been wonderful and is ongoing. We have heard from people young and old that they are inspired and see growing old in a more nuanced light. We have had pieces published in a variety of publications to reach new audiences, as well as on our website. We have more stories coming soon and hope people will follow along and share them with their friends! Best of all, we received funding from the New York Community Trust for a second year, so that we are able to follow these 20 inspiring people even longer and share their stories more widely.
Can you share a little of what you learned over the course of this project with Chandrakant Sheth and India Home.
India Home is an inspiring place. The people who attend demonstrate the diversity within the experience of older immigrants in New York, especially depending on what age a person has come to the U.S. and with what resources and knowledge. India Home is an example of the importance of culturally appropriate services and the need for meeting places in a city made of micro neighborhoods and cultural communities.
From Chandrakant, I have learned so much. I have learned how much having a positive outlook can aid resiliency and how it is a basic human need to have a sense of community. I have seen with Chandrakant, as with others that we are following, the challenges of building a new life and finding new connections when one’s partner passes. And I am also inspired by his desire to widen his community beyond only people with his same background. And finally, I have been so impressed by Chandrakant’s thirst for knowledge and how adept at technology he is! Chandrakant certainly challenges anyone’s belief that learning technology in old age is not possible.
We still have another part of Chandrakant’s story to come, so stay tuned!
On the night of Saturday May 7, over 700 people watched India Home’s seniors dance the vigorous folk dance from Gujarat, known as the Ras Garba, on stage at the Hindu Community Center in Flushing. The event was part of Ras Garba Ramzat, a dance night, organized by Shashikant Patel and Gopi Udeshi, organizers of Bruhud Seniors. Over 80% of the participants dancing were seniors! They were dressed in spectacular garba outfits, and danced with great joy, whirling and twirling to the music. India Home sponsored the venue for Ramzat. India Home’s Executive Director, Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, marveled: “Watching them dance, I feel that all India Home’s efforts to keep our seniors healthy and happy is truly worthwhile.”
Kamuben, who is 81, was one of the dancers. Before the event she practiced the dance for an hour at least twice a week. She said, “I enjoyed the practice and loved dancing the garba on stage. I want to keep doing such programs.”
We asked her what the secret to her good health was and she said, “It’s god’s gift.” When we pressed her on her health routines she said. “I have a regular dinner, regular day, regular TV. I do all the housework, and read a lot. I walk for 30 minutes and you know,I do yoga every morning that I learned here at India Home. I only eat vegetarian food.”
Does she think about her age? “Not at all. Year comes and years go. Take rest and be happy.”
Kamuben and all the other seniors at India Home have a lot to teach us about loving life fiercely and living it with gusto.