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.
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 was honored with a Commendation by Scott Stringer, New York City Comptroller for outstanding services to the city of New York. In his speech on the occasion, Comptroller Stringer, congratulated us for the “culturally sensitive social, nutritional, psychological, recreational” programs we provide to South Asian seniors, as well as the opportunities we give our elders to develop “leadership and engage in self-advocacy.” We were honored alongside two sister organizations providing crucial services to South Asian communities: Indo-Caribbean Alliance and The Sikh Coalition. The event was also a Diwali celebration and was attended by 200-300 movers and shakers from New York City’s South Asian community. We were thrilled to have so many of our members join us and dressed in their traditional best to show their support and joy! You can see more photos by clicking here.
Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, our Executive Director receives the commendation for outstanding services to NYC from Comptroller Scott Stringer
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!
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)
Maimoon Mohammad, 74, was born in Guyana in the Caribbean in 1942 and moved permanently to Jamaica, Queens in 2012, where she now lives with her daughter. A small, voluble lady with a large loving smile, she is a regular at India Home’s Desi Senior Center. She speaks English and Guyanese creole. In this edited interview, we have tried capture a little of that distinct flavor.
Maimoon Mohammed is from Guyana and as she says,”every three times a week I come here to the center.”
On her childhood: “I work work work when I was small. I plant rice, I cut rice.”
I was born on Plantation Ogle in Guyana. My grandparents were Muslim. Only I live with my grandparents, and all my brothers and sisters live with my parents. My grandparents come from India and they believed at the time I turn a young lady I should stop going to school. I was very very bright in school. Very brilliant in school. When I go to up to 5th grade I become a young lady and I stopped going to school. We had no computer, no clock nothing. When I sleep I wake to the bell of the sugar factory.
I only had to work work work work when I was small. I plant rice, I cut rice. In our own fields. We had a piece of land to plant; not an estate. Not with the white people. We had a vegetable garden. It was very long, so we going out there to work. We plant squash, kathal (jackfruit), all kinds of vegetables and then when it is too much, we pick it and go and sell it out in the market.
On her grandparents: “He was an overseer. They called him Sardar.”
My grandfather was born in 1901. He was tall and fair and had blue eyes, his father was a white man. The British bring the people from India to work. The British were ruling. My grandfather he would take the order and take these people into work on the sugar estate. You go that way, you go this way, he would say to the workers. He was something like an overseer or a director. They call him Sardar. Sardar, they would say. When I was small and my grandma and we clean the kathal (jackfruit), we have to skin it take out the seeds, when we do that, my grandma tell me lots of stories.
On looking after her sick grandmother: “I massage her and I bring her back good.”
One day I come back from sewing class and I see my grandma get a stroke. She just sit there then suddenly get up with a passion. She hold her stomach from the pressure of the blood rushing up. I call my neighbor. We put her to rest then we take her to the doctor. Then I start to mind her. I wasn’t married then. I massage her everyday. I bring her back good. Two years after she get it back again. Again I massage her and bring her back. My grandmother died after my first child was born, so I start to look after my grandfather. Then he remarried.
On marriage: “In February my husband and I will be married 58 years.”
I marry at 17 years, my husband as 19 years when we marry. I married and went to the West Bank in Guyana. I got five children. Three daughters and two sons, but one boy died when he was just two years old. My husband worked in the sugar factory. He worked from when he was 18 until he retired at 60 years old. In February we will be married 58 years.
On coming to America: “Didi, 69 years you live in Guyana, you gonna miss us there in the US.”
I used to come here from Guyana on vacation. I was 69 when I came permanent to the U.S in 2012. I’m 74 now. My daughter brought me here and now I live with my daughter and son-in-law. They are very good to me. My son-in-laws are like my own sons. My daughter doesn’t let me cook, she furnish me. Now I have 8 grandsons and 1 granddaughter. And two great-grand children in Guyana. Every day I thank Allah for his bounties and favors. My sister, when I leave she say: “Didi, 69 years u live in Guyana, you gonna miss us there.” I like it very much here. Even it’s cold you can stay warm. I go back to Guyana to see my family and friends. I always think of my family and friends. They call me and I call them. One day, my neighbor from Guyana called. He was so sweet. I can’t figure how he got my phone number. I have my grandson in Guyana. He’s very handsome. I miss him.
On her routine: “You should see me garden. I have 20 squash.”
I keep myself busy. I don’t watch the TV so much. I clean upstairs, I clean my room. I do puzzles, my grandson got me a big puzzle book. I go to the park and walk around. I go to the mosque. I pray my salat five times a day and I read the Islamic Book in English. I go to the center three days a week. I pray upstairs. I’m growing things. You should see me garden. I have 20 squash in my garden. Yesterday I clean so much “sem,” (runner beans). I clean them and I freeze them for the winter to cook it. I thank the Lord that for my age, I can go down on my knees and clean my place and cook. Allah has blessed me.
On India Home: “All kinds of people come together, it’s so nice.”
Every three times a week I come here to the center. India Home is so nice for elders. All kinds of people come together. There’s entertainment. We get some exercise, some food. I saw Manhattan when they took us on the trip. Only thing I don’t understand Bangladesh language. There’s a girl here from Guyana. She lives in 161 street. Me and she and my husband get together, we speak English. It’s very very nice. They [India Home] are doing good things.
New York University’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health (CSAAH) held a community health forum at our Desi Senior Center on Tuesday, September 26th. The forum celebrated the advances in the health of our seniors thanks to our partnership with CSAAH. MD Taher is the Project Coordinator for NYU’s Department of Population Health and a Community Health Worker with CSAAH. He has, for the past several months, helped to coordinate impactful health projects at the Desi Senior Center in Jamaica. “We wanted to share our results with the community, celebrate their health,” he said. Also being celebrated was our successful partnership with New York University’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health (CSAAH), which is the leading institute in the US set up to study Asian American health. Our collaboration with the institute has helped facilitate and advance several health projects.
We wanted to tell the community what our findings were, and thank the seniors from India Home, MD Taher, Project Coordinator, NYU Department of Population Health, said.
These projects fill a necessary void in care because as MD Taher said: “There are serious health concerns in the community.” One in four Bangladeshis have diabetes. One in five suffer from hypertension.
One of these projects, titled Keep On Track / Reach Far trained 26 volunteers at India Home to monitor blood pressure as part of a Community Health Assessment. Over 80 seniors from Desi Senior Center participated in the project.
Other projects too have had a direct impact on the health of our seniors. One helped to disseminate nutrition information with culturally and linguistically adapted brochures in Bengali and Hindi. “They came many, many times to the center to teach our seniors about nutrition. They gave them a cup and a spoon, taught them how to measure their food portions, ” Nargis Ahmed, the Site Director for Desi Senior Center said. Nargis worked closely with the NYU team to get seniors to try these new nutrition strategies.
The team from CSAAH shared the finding from various projects with the seniors at India Home’s Desi Senior Center.
Another important innovation has been CSAAH’s partnership with five area pharmacies to create linguistically adapted health materials in Hindi and Bengali, the languages spoken by our seniors. CSAAH also launched a nutrition strategy by working with area restaurants like Star Kabab in Jamaica to replace ingredients in common dishes so as to make them healthier. For example, switching white rice with brown in kitchurie ( a Bengali rice and lentil dish) increased its nutrition content. CSAAH has also partnered with local mosques to serve healthier foods for the iftar meal that breaks the Ramadan fast.
Other CSAAH projects like the DREAM (Diabetes Research, Education, and Action for Minorities) project, a five-year community based participatory research study, have also had success in improving attitudes toward health in the Bangladeshi community. The DREAM project aims to develop, implement, and test a Community Health Worker (CHW) Program designed to improve diabetes control and diabetes-related health complications in the Bangladeshi community in New York City. As a result of this effort at diabetes management, over 400 patients who participated across the city lost weight, became more active physically, managed their medications better and saw their doctors regularly.
The community health forum was held in the spirit of transparency and partnership and sought to update the seniors who participated in the projects and create ongoing dialogue. “We wanted to tell the community what our findings were,” MD Taher said. “And thank them.” The forum was well attended by community leaders, partners, local businesses, policy makers, and media partners.
Dr. Nadia Islam, PhD, the Deputy Director and co-investigator of the Center for the Study of Asian American Health presents findings on the DREAM Project.
The response from the community of seniors has been excellent. Even with all the barriers like work, taking care of grandchildren and busy lives, participants have been able to maintain the lifestyle changes they made as a result of the projects. India Home is happy to have done its part in improving the lives of our seniors. In the face of the rapidly growing older adult population of Bengali seniors in New York City, India Home’s vision is to continue to be a leading resource to our seniors and agencies and institutions that are working to respond to their changing and emerging needs. “Our seniors were very happy that they learned new things and I plan to continue to remind them,” Nargis Ahmed said.
Seniors wave the India tricolor flag in celebration (Photo credit: C.K. Lalita)
Many of our programs are developed in consultation with our seniors and often the seniors themselves take the lead in planning and executing them. Our seniors decided to celebrate Indian Independence Day in style this year. They brought in the decorations planned the activities, dressed up in the orange, white and green of the India flag, brought friends and relatives, and then threw themselves enthusiastically into the celebration. Manik Malhotra, an entertainer from Sa Re Ga Ma Desi Beats played the keyboard and sang popular Bollywood and patriotic songs. Inspired by this nostalgia and ready to show their Indian national pride, our seniors marched around the senior center proudly waving the Indian flag and Perhaps it was nostalgia or perhaps it was just to have some fun — but at one point all our seniors waved flags and marched to the strains of patriotic songs.
India Abroad is the oldest paper aimed at the Indian Diaspora in America
India Home becomes the cover story in India Abroad! India Abroad is the oldest newspaper aimed at the Indian diaspora in America and is both a print publication and online site. Recently they published a special edition on seniors and gave prominent place to a long cover feature on India Home.
“When I had a fever, my father-in-law fasted so I would get better.” “When I was leaving for America my father told me I was brave and should not cry.” “My father never bought himself a single thing–he sacrificed his life for us.”
Our stories make us who we are, our stories tell of where we come from, our stories shape our past and our future. For Father’s Day, India Home’s elders stood up one by one and shared memories of their fathers and father figures and it was a beautiful thing to hear them. They told stories of men whose sacrifice, caring and determination made a better life for children. Familiar perhaps to some, but made new and precious in the passion and wonder of the telling. In sharing their stories so openly, our elders enrich our lives. And after the stories, came the feast donated by Bharat Patel in memory of his wife, Vikuntala Patel, and gifts, donated by Usha and Bharat Shah.