Written with contributions from Anita Konaje and Meeta Patel
A group of eight LGBTQ South Asians gathered around platters of mushroom kababs and Chicken Methi Malai at Sahib restaurant in Manhattan, NY, one evening in May, and worried that they would have nothing to say to each other. Okay, so they didn’t actually know each other, but it’s not as if strangers don’t get together at dinner all the time. What made this dinner different was that they were were all of wildly varying ages. Anita was 29, Meeta was 40ish, Per was 70, Pradip was in his 80s, Babu was in his 60’s, and then there was the baby of the group, 23 year old Rahim. The age difference was…shall we say, pretty wide, hence the worry. Still, they had been brought together to try a SAGE Table, and so here they were. Created by SAGE (Services &Advocacy for GLBT Elders) with support from AARP, the SAGE Table was a one day event that brought together different generations of LGBTQ+ people across America to share a meal. This particular SAGE Table was brought together by SALGA NYC, New York City’s community organization for LGBTQ+ South Asians.
SAGE had built the concept around a simple idea – namely, the generation gap. In America, older people are usually segregated from young people. Interests, music, spaces, trends, a relentless focus on youth – all tend to keep us stolidly fixed in our silos. For LGBTQ+ people the gap can sometimes be a chasm. Many older gay people are afraid to reveal their sexual orientation. Some LGBTQ+ people don’t have kids or a family that supports their choices. Hence the SAGE Table wanted LGBTQ+ people of all ages to get together. Share their experiences. Find out what it felt like to care for each other if age didn’t matter. Break bread (or in this case, naan).
It sounded great in theory, but Pradip was skeptical. He didn’t really like going to group events he confessed. They were always crowded with young people and no one talked to them. Often they were left to their own devices and after a while it got boring to hang around, he said. But his friend, Babu, had persuaded him to come to this particular SAGE Table, which was hosted by SALGA NYC. Anita, who was representing SALGA, had worried about the exact same thing. What would they talk about?
Over the tomato soup and pakoras, someone started talking about the resistance. Not the one now, but the one that had started in the ’60s and the ’70s, another time in history when social justice issues were boiling up. Pradip and Babu had both come to America at that time of fervent. They had participated in the movement for equal rights as college students. Meeta, who is also from SALGA, was intrigued by the fact that Pradip had arrived in America, even before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that brought so many South Asians to the US. But the ’60s were also a time when Westerners were going to India to find themselves. Per, another diner, had gone to Varanasi, lived in India for a while, and that had been another kind of revolution altogether.
The conversation moved on to books.
Pradip was a writer and had published a book of short stories in Bengali. Per had published a self-help book called “Gay Money,” that tells aging gay men how to organize their finances better. On Amazon, the description promises to tell gays and lesbians, among other nuggets of wisdom, “What insurance we absolutely need to protect our legacy, our lovers – or our independence.”
The food kept coming: Gutti Venkaya Kura, a delicacy from Andhra Pradesh, then, Alu Gobi, a dry potato and cauliflower dish.
Like the inveterate New Yorkers they were, the diners kept circling back to marvel at the life they led here. Everyone at the table felt lucky to be living in the city and lucky to be in a place that allowed LGBTQ+ communities, like the one gathered around the table, to have events like the one they were at.
The mango mousse arrived.
As the night wound on, everyone kept talking. Pradip said he was glad Babu had pushed him to come tonight; it was nice to talk to people for hours without thinking about age at all. Then it was time to leave. Where they would meet next time, they wondered. Would it be easier to meet in someone’s apartment? Or how about a picnic in Central Park.
On April 19, 2017, India Home invited its members as well as residents of the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens to a movie night at the PS 69Q auditorium. The film that was shown was Bollywood tear-jerker “Neerja,” an award-winning film about the bravery and sacrifice of a young air hostess on board a Pan-Am flight that was hijacked in 1984. Our members enjoyed free samosas and chai before settling in to watch the film. Later, there was avid discussion about the film and the heroism of the young air hostess.
A few early birds waiting for the movie to start
This initiative to extend our programming to the evening, is part of our on-going efforts to combat the social isolation that seniors often endure. This is also a first step in doing more activities in Jackson Heights, an area with a large South Asian community.
Last year India Home was approached by John Rudolf, the Executive Producer of the Feet In Two Worlds podcast. The podcast is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs housed at the New School. “For the past 10 years, Feet in 2 Worlds has brought the work of immigrant and ethnic media journalists from communities across the U.S. to public radio and the web,” according to their website. Rudolf introduced his student-reporters, Sruti Penumetsa and Alex Wynn, who were interested time in making a podcast about India Home. Sruthi and Alex came by and spent time in our satellite centers at Sunnyside and Kew Gardens, talking to our South Asian elders, and blending in so well, that half the time we even forgot they were around.
Now the results are in – the work Penumetsa and Wynn created is up on the FiTW website. It features the voices and opinions of many of India Home’s members. Our members share intimate details of their lives, talk about the loneliness and isolation that accompanies aging, and how they deal with it, their yearning for their homeland, and the comfort they find in their friends at India Home. What emerges is an audio portrait of a vibrant, close knit community that has adjusted to the vicissitudes of aging in their own inimitable way. Click the link to listen to the podcast here: https://feetintwoworlds.podbean.com or click below:
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.
Every year, India Home plans a celebration for Diwali, one of the most important holidays for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. This year, however, a group of seniors, spearheaded by our members Dinesh Parmar and Bharat Patel, took the lead to plan, execute and carry out the Diwali event. The celebration was held at the Gujarati Samaj Hall on the Horace Harding Expressway in Queens, a spacious venue with an excellent stage and sound system. The women’s committee donated traditional lamps and runners and “showed up early in the morning at 7 a.m.,” to decorate the place, Niruben Hansoty said.
Movers and shakers were seniors
Dinesh Parmar and Bharat Patel, the movers and shakers behind the event, welcomed the audience with a traditional lamp lighting ceremony or deep pragatya. Then the members honored India Home’s Executive Director, Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, Deputy Director, Lakshman Kalasapudi and other staff of India Home, the President of the Gujarati Sama (who donated the space) and Mukesh Mehta, a Board Member of India Home.
Bharat Patel (left) and Dinesh Parmar (right)
Dr.Vasundhara Kalasapudi, E.D., India Home
The band played on
After the speeches, it was time for fun. Well known New Jersey-based singer Varsha Joshi and her band sang Bollywood hits and Gujarati traditional songs. Our seniors got down on the dance floor, dancing the garba and other folk dances with vigor, breaking only for a fabulous lunch from Usha Foods.
Our members love to dance the vigorous Garba
New jersey-based singer Varsha Joshi entertained the audience
India Home members come from all different faiths and religions and we celebrate a lot of religious and cultural holidays. We celebrated Sikhism by holding an event for Guru Nanak Gurpurub on Monday, November 21st. Gurpurub generally falls in Autumn and is considered a most sacred festival by Sikhs because it honors the birthday of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak is the first of the 10 Sikh gurus or spiritual teachers.
Mr. Raghubir Bhatti, our active and jovial member, took the lead to present a short informative program on Gurpurub. He spoke about the major principles of the Sikh faith and emphasized its inclusiveness. Sikhs make no distinctions among people based on caste, class or gender. Its tenets are firmly rooted in the belief that all people are equal and preach that people of different races, religions, or sex are all the same in the eyes of God. The religion believes in the full equality of men and women. Women can participate in any religious event or perform any Sikh ceremony or lead the congregation in prayer. And since no birthday celebration is complete without something sweet, our seniors shared fruit and ladoos, an Indian sweet.
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!
DFTA Commissioner Donna Corrado at the Aging In Place Conference
Almost all of the adults we serve at India Home’s four centers in Queens are “aging in place,” or living independently in their homes. They get to choose their communities. They get to participate and contribute in their neighborhoods and maintain and widen their friendships and social connections. “Aging in Place” thus gives our members a sense of purpose and of their place in their immediate community and larger society. New York city has been active in developing age-friendly agendas, but suburban communities need to ramp up their efforts in creating livable and viable spaces for the aging.
The need becomes more pressing when we consider that by 2030 New York State is expected to experience a 40% growth in its 60+ population, increasing from 3.7 million in 2015 to 5.3 million. While almost all of New York State will experience rapid growth of people in the 75-85 and 85+ cohort, New York City, Nassau, and Suffolk counties are home to the largest older adult populations of immigrants and people of color, like the South Asian seniors we serve at India Home.
Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi and Jacqueline B. Mondros, Dean and VP, Stony Brook University
It is with all these important considerations in mind that DFTA Commissioner Donna Corrado and others from NYS Office of Aging, AARP NY, and several other government and medical organizations along with experts in various fields serving older adults joined together to hold a Working Summit at the Hilton Garden Hotel on the campus of Stony Brook University.
Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi represented India Home and provided input on the problems unique to South Asian elders at the conference. India Home’s early programs started in very suburban locations such as Queens Village, Baldwin, and Elmont. Through these experiences have given Dr. Kalasapudi a unique insight into best practices for culturally appropriate senior services in the suburban setting.
India Home wins the 2016 Local Community Leadership Award from NYU and AARP. Seen here with Daphne Kwok, the VP of Multi-cultural Affairs
India Home was awarded the 2016 Local Community Action Leadership Award by NYU CSAAH and AARP at the 8th Annual Aging Together, Bridging Generations conference for Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders. This award recognized individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to improving the health of Asian American and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AA and NHPI) older adults. We were honored for our leadership and commitment in advocating for and providing vital health and social service needs to the Indian and larger South Asian immigrant older adult community. NYU CSAAH felt that the organization’s visionary leadership had been critical in helping to achieve their mission to reduce health disparities in the Asian American community through outreach, education and research. NYU CSAAH is the only center of its kind in the country that is solely dedicated to research and evaluation on Asian American health and health disparities.
India Home was also invited to be on a panel titled “Improving Health at the Community Level: Community-Based Innovative Approaches and Promising Practices.” We discussed our use culturally sensitive health practices like Ayurveda and Yoga classes to attract, retain, and attain buy-in for continuing health education from our South Asian members. We also discussed the myriad ways in which we use community-specific dance, food, talks and trips that are culturally appropriate to combat social isolation and keep our seniors happy and attend to their physical and mental wellbeing.
Among the special guests at the conference were keynote speaker Jeanette C. Takamura, MSW, PhD, Dean of Social Work at Columbia University School of Social Work (and Former Assistant Secretary of Aging at US Department of Health & Human Services), as well as MSNBC anchor Richard Lui and AARP’s community ambassador, the famous retired general Tony Taguba.
They wore saris with sequins, salwar kameezes with gold trim and blouses with mirror work. One member wore a cap like a famous yester-year Bollywood star. Another lady wore a costume from the state of Rajastan in India. Most of our members at India Home’s Sunnyside facility are immigrants from India and on Monday, September 19, a spectrum of fabrics, styles and costumes from across the home country were on display. While the event started out as a Fashion Show, our wonderful, enthusiastic members soon turned it into a Talent Show. Some matched their outfits to famous songs, showing off their prodigious memory of Bollywood songs. Many couples sang duets, danced or strolled holding hands to romantic ballads. Some showed off their comedic talents or did some improv.
As one member, Dinesh Bhai, wrote in an email: “Old is gold. For a few hours that day, seniors turned twenty years old.”