Chhaya CDC honored India Home with a Community Leadership Award for Community Impact at the nonprofit’s annual Chatpati Mela held in Jackson Heights on July 21, 2018. Melinda Katz, the Queens Borough President. honored India Home’s work serving the South Asian elderly, with a citation awarded to India Home’s Executive Director, Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi.
Chayya CDC honored India Home with the Community Leadership Award on July 21st. Melinda Katz (far left) honored Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi (third from left) India Home’s Executive Director, with a citation.
Speaking on the occasion, Ms. Melinda Katz said she was amazed every single say at the “unbelievably needed service” provided by India Home’s aging services. “In the city of New York, with its immigrant South Asian population increasing exponentially since the 90s, there was a never ending need for services. Since 2007 India Home has provided an array of services in a warm caring and culturally sensitive environment, so important to aging gracefully in our great borough. ”
Chhaya CDC is a non-profit organization in Jackson Heights, that works with New Yorkers of South Asian origin to advocate for and build economically stable, sustainable, and thriving communities.
Nurul Khan and his wife Farida Begum are an older Bengali couple from Queens who lived for 30 years in damp basement apartments in Jamaica, Queens until recently.
“It was so damp I got arthritis,” Farida Begum said to visitors recently. “The basement was freezing.”
After living in damp basement apartments for 30 years, seniors Nurul Khan and his wife Farida Begum recently moved into affordable senior housing
The visitors were in Farida Begum’s brand new apartment on 96th avenue. Tiny and spry, the 58 year old rushed about the apartment getting us snacks and making chai on her brand new stovetop.
“I never saw the sun for all those years. My body used to ache all over.” “Now look!” She gestures with delight to the window that looks out on to Amsterdam avenue and where her squash and chili plants on the sill soak in the sun.
In 2017, India Home helped Mr and Mrs. Khan re-apply for an affordable senior apartment with the city. A year later, the Khans moved into an apartment owned by NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority), in one of the city’s 41 seniors-only developments.
Mr and Mrs. Khan have been allotted a one-bedroom apartment. For seniors on a fixed income finding affordable housing can be challenging
“Thank Allah for getting us this house.” Farida Begum said proudly showing us the kitchen and the bathroom in the spotless one – bedroom apartment . “Everything is very nice.”
Mr and Mrs. Khan are the lucky ones who managed to get an apartment they can afford. Many others are not so fortunate.
In New York City, the number of people over age 65 has passed the one million mark for the first time in history and 462,000 of those are over 75 years old. By 2040, one in five city residents will be an older adult. However, there’s a severe shortage of affordable senior housing for this rapidly growing population.
In January of 2016 LiveOn NY, an advocacy group for aging New Yorkers released a survey of affordable senior housing buildings located in New York City, financed through Section 202 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). An astounding 110,912 seniors were found to be on waiting lists for affordable housing through the HUD 202 Program. With a citywide response rate of 46%, LiveOn NY estimated that upwards of 200,000 individuals were likely to be on waiting lists in New York City. Further, the study found that seniors wait an average of 7 years after first applying to receive affordable housing, with some having to wait as long as 10 years.
After living in dank basements for 30 years, Farida Begum is happy to live in a bright apartment where she can grow green beans and squash on her window sill.
Nationally, too, a 2014 study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation concluded that for the older U.S. population, “Housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply.”
The situation has steadily worsened for seniors since back in 2012, the Federal government under President Obama cut funds for new private affordable housing developments under Section 202 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In Jamaica, the Khan’s were paying $1300 for the basement apartment. Nurul Khan (68) continues to work doing security with a contractor at JFK airport, as he has for the past 20 years. His wife retired from working at Rug Doctor in Long Island, repairing carpets. They didn’t have children and have had to depend on these low paying jobs to support themselves. Their economic circumstances have worsened because of the rising rents. Their landlord threatened to raise the rent and that’s when they came to India Home’s Case management team. The team reactivated an old application that had fallen dormant and helped the couple to reapply.
According to the New York Times, “for those who are still working age, it’s getting harder to pay the rent: According to a StreetEasy survey, rents in the city rose twice as fast as wages between 2010 and 2017. The lowest rents (those up to $2,300) rose 4.9 percent annually since 2010, which means someone who paid $1,500 a month in 2010 likely paid nearly $600 more for the same place in 2017.”
For seniors on a fixed income it can be a challenge to find affordable housing in NYC. The application process is confusing for immigrants with limited English skills, and the wait lists long. Even when they do get an apartment, seniors are often displaced from all that is familiar.
Social Isolation is a problem
Farida Begum says she has to depend on her husband now to get Bengali groceries from Queens. While they live in an area that is well connected to public transport, Farida says she’s afraid now to take the train all the way to Queens to see her relatives and friends because she may get lost.
“This is a beautiful apartment, but I ‘m scared. Who will come here to help if something happens to us?” Farida Begum says.
A growing percentage of New Yorkers prefer to age in their community, surrounded by their friends and relatives and supports cultivated over a lifetime. However, given the fact that there are not enough apartments to go around, seniors like Nurul Khan and Farida Begum have to take whatever they can get, even if it is far from their friends and relatives.
But Mr. Khan hopes that things may change soon. “There’s some new apartments that have opened up in Queens.” He’s been keeping track.
May is Older Americans Month – an observance that is led by the Administration on Aging, part of the Administration for Community Living (ACL). The theme for 2018 is ENGAGE AT EVERY AGE, which celebrates the way in which older adults make a difference in our communities whether it is by volunteering at hospitals, senior centers, marching in a rally or babysitting their grandkids. The slogan is also a reminder that you are never too old (or young) to take part in activities that enrich one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
At India Home our elders have been immersed in a great number of events that have kept them happy, and yes, engaged at every age!
1. May 9: Advocating for all elders at City Hall
On Advocacy Day 2018, organized by LiveOn NY, our elders made a show of strength at City Hall to advocate for more funding in the budget for cultural congregate meals, case management, hiring culturally competent staff, transportation and a host of other needs.
Our elders got to New York City’s City Hall bright and early!
They got to meet with the City’s electeds like Council Man Jimmy Van Bremar, shown here, and make their case
India Home showed up in strength at the Press Conference and Rally.
2. May 10: Our “Memoirs and Moments” writing workshop ended with a public reading!
Our Bengali Muslim elders at Desi Senior Center have been writing memoir pieces in a writing workshop for the last eight weeks. They celebrated their efforts and their writing with a reading. The writers read about beloved objects, loved ones, childhoods in Bangladesh and the pieces were beautiful and poignant. There was cake to celebrate and hugs all around.
Certificates for our writing workshop participants who worked so hard
So many poignant and beautifully written pieces!
Our elders wrote about beloved objects, people and places. Sabbin Akter, the teaching artist who taught them looks on proudly.
3. May 14: Mother’s Day Celebrations
We celebrated India Home’s mothers and grandmothers with gifts, cake, musical interludes and a big, fat party!
What’s a party without dancing?
Gifts for everyone!
A special (culturally appropriate) feast!
4. Dance theater workshops continue at a vigorous pace
India Home’s elders at our Sunnyside center are having a great time working with Teaching Artist Parijat Desai in dance theater workshops that combine garba and abstract movement, with their own individual stories.
Three mornings a week, Abu Sayeed, 64, wakes up in his home in Cyprus Hills in Brooklyn, NY, worrying about the subway. He wonders if he’ll manage get the right train? How long will he have to wait? As he gets ready for his long walk to the station – putting on a cap, a thick sweater, sports shoes – he worries if he’ll make it in time to catch the exercise class he loves so much at the Desi Senior Center in faraway Jamaica, Queens.
His journey begins at the Cypress Hills subway station in Brooklyn where he catches the J train to the Sutphin Boulevard station in Queens. From there he transfers to the E train for Kew Gardens. At Kew Gardens he waits for the F train to Jamaica’s 169th street station.
Three trains and 70 minutes after he first got into the subway, he emerges into the light at Hillside Avenue and walks up the slope to the Desi Senior Center. He’s timed the walk: it takes a further 8 minutes.
Abu Sayeed has to take 3 trains and travel for more than an hour to get to India Home’s Desi Senior Center. Lack of convenient transportation increases the social isolation and decreases the wellbeing of our immigrant seniors.
Refuge from Social Isolation
Abu Sayeed has made this complicated journey, three times a week, ever since the Desi Senior Center opened in 2014. “My three arteries was blocked so I had three bypass operations. But still I came,” he says, proud of his tenacity. “I am coming here since day one. December 15, 2014.” His eyes crinkle under his cap. We are in the office of India Home’s Desi Senior Center in Jamaica. Outside the door, other older adults at the center have finished their lunch of rice and chicken curry are munching on apples for desert. A few pop in now and then to say hello to Sayeed or to ask questions of the staff.
So why, given the time and effort it takes, does he make this journey day after day?
Abu Sayeed doesn’t hesitate. “The friendliness of all the people here is very important to me. It is something that I enjoy every much,” is how Sayeed explains his dedication.
For Sayeed, and others like him, the Desi Senior Center, catering to mostly Bengali muslims and other immigrants from South Asia, is a refuge from social isolation, a problem that more and more elderly face in New York city. Sayeed moved from Bangladesh in 2008 to join his children in the US. His sons are busy, off at work or college, leaving Sayeed and his wife alone at home. In the summer he putters around growing flowers and vegetables in his small garden, but in the winter, there’s nothing to do. “My wife is idle,” he mock-laments. She’s happy to stay home. But he gets bored.
At the Desi Senior Center he meets older adults from his country who share the same language and culture, people with whom he can laugh or talk politics with for a few hours a day. There are other reasons that draw him here: “There is a group exercise session that happens every day that I really like. That is the main reason why I come here. They also serve halal food which, especially for me, is very important.”
Food that is culturally suited, exercise, a friendly face: Sayeed’s needs are simple. Yet the journey to enjoy a few hours of small comforts is difficult.
The burden of transportation costs
Finding easily accessible public transportation is one problem; the high cost of transportation is another. Sayeed, who retired as a manager at a fertilizer plant in Bangladesh, has no work history in the US and thus has no social security income to draw upon. The cost can become a burden: “Every day I am spending $5.50…that is a lot if you don’t have a job.” he says. Selvia Sikder is a case management worker at India Home: “New York City requires that older adults have to be 65+ to get the reduced fare Metrocard. Many of our elders who don’t meet the criteria, even those who are below the poverty line, are spending $5 dollars a day to get to the center.” They can’t access private transportation services because these seniors are often on Medicaid, and these services are not available to those on the Medicaid plan.
There are days when Sayeed simply doesn’t have money and waits for some kind soul to swipe him through the turnstile.
Still, not all elders are as determined or as healthy as Sayeed. “Many elders have to beg for a ride to come to the center. Or wait for family to come and pick up. Some can’t afford even the reduced fare of $1.35. Others live far away from the nearest subway or bus-stop and find it difficult to walk,” Selvia, the case worker, explained.
Fast Growing Elderly Population Needs Better Options
New York City’s large older adult population includes 1.4 million people over the age of 60 and the fastest growing segment of this population are immigrant seniors. The 2013 poverty rate among those age 65 and over was 21.6%. Given these statistics, one would think that NYC would make improving the public transportation system for the elderly a priority. However, the global design and consulting firm Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Mobility index 2017 published in 2017 found that NYC’s public transportation system was ranked 23rd in the world. Funding concerns, long commute times and looming mega projects kept the city out of the top tier.
New York City’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) funds 14 transportation only programs, which provide means of transportation to older and frail adults, according to a concept paper released in 2015. However these programs serve a limited number of community districts. Many community districts in Brooklyn and Queens remain without a ready source that can provide transportation to older adults.
The benefits of older adults being able to use a low-cost, easily accessed public transportation system are well documented. In January 2017, Reuters reported on a UK study that followed 18,000 older adults for more than a decade. Eliminating cost as a barrier to traveling around town was seen as an important way to improve the mental health of older adults by reducing loneliness and lack of social engagement.
By 2040 the older adult population of New York city is set to grow by 31%. Without proper transportation infrastructure that works for the aging, older adults like Abu Sayeed will face increasing social isolation and the physical and mental health issues that come with it. For now, though Abu Sayeed is looking forward to turning 65. “After 1 yr and 4 months I’ll get my half-fare Metro Card.” He grins in anticipation. “Almost there,” he says.
Here are some of the recommendations that AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) urged on Congress in 2012. Many of them could be applied in NYC today.
Dedicate increased funding for public transportation and the specialized transportation program for older adults and persons with disabilities.
Include support for operations to help mitigate the high cost of gas and other expenses.
Strengthen the coordination of public transportation and transportation provided by human services programs, such as agencies that provide transportation for seniors to group meals
Ensure that older Americans have greater involvement in developing transportation plans to meet their needs.
Ensure that state departments of transportation retain their authority to use a portion of their highway funds for transit projects and programs.
Include a Complete Streets policy to ensure that streets and intersections around transit stops are safe and convenient.
Salma Abdul1 was born and grew up in Bangladesh. Her children left for the US to study, then settled in the country as permanent residents. When her husband died, she found herself alone. Her children, unable to leave their lives in the US, but worried about her aging alone, asked her to come and join them in America. When Abdul arrived in the USA at 69 years of age, she had to find her feet in a brand new country and culture. Her adopted country was technologically more advanced and spoke a language she didn’t understand. Its culture was completely different from hers. Its systems were complex and, because she couldn’t speak fluent English, harder to navigate.
With the numbers of immigrant elderly surging in cities like NYC, cultural competency on the part of service providers like hospitals becomes ever more important.
“I feel tension in my mind,”: Being ill and unable to communicate
Abdul’s real troubles began when she became ill with kidney disease and had to visit a city hospital on her own. Her children were pre-occupied with work and demands from their young families, and couldn’t spare the time. The hospital had few interpreters. Intake staff at the hospital couldn’t speak Bengali and instead made her access the Translation Hotline and tell the disembodied voice at the other of the phone her symptoms. Doctors ignored what she was struggling to say in her broken English, or dismissed her after a cursory examination.
Discrimination as a barrier to care
According to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers analyzed data from 6,017 Americans older than 50 who took part in a Health and Retirement Study and found that one out of five of these adults experience discrimination in healthcare settings, and one in 17 experiences it frequently. “Ageism in healthcare is very common and experienced by many older adults,” says lead author Stephanie Rogers, MD, MPAS, MPH, a clinical geriatric fellow at University of California San Francisco. There have also been several studies that prove that immigrants in particular report more discrimination in healthcare settings (Derose et al., 2009).
In Abdul’s case, she “found it difficult to understand the instructions the doctors gave her or the questions he asked her,” said Afroditi Panna, India Home’s Case Manager. Abdul’s daughter also spoke to Panna. Abdul’s daughter felt her mother, was being ignored and treatment options were left unexplained, perhaps because she was older immigrant woman of color who spoke hardly any English. The doctors and nurses would explain things to her when she accompanied her mother, Abdul’s daughter reported, however, when her mother went alone, they would be unresponsive and “not nice”.
“That’s when we decided to start accompanying Salma to the hospital because, as with so many of our immigrant elders, she didn’t know what questions to ask her doctor, how to fill forms, or even where to go, or how to get to different specialists,” Panna said.
Case managers and cultural Interpreters
In her experience with Care Management, Panna said, older adults need help with much more than just paperwork. Sometimes, she and her team are called upon to become interlocutors between cultures.
For instance, when a doctor asks a Bangladeshi senior, how she feels emotionally or mentally she’ll invariably answer, “amar onek tension,” or “I have a lot of tension in my mind.” In Bengali culture, the English word tension is often used as a catch all term for anxiety or depression or worry, and other distressing mental issues. Most American doctors don’t understand this culturally specific term, unless someone with cultural competence (like an accompanying case worker) can explain what the elder means.
Salma Abdul’s case highlights an important point that often gets lost in the scramble to deliver aging services: with the numbers of immigrant elderly surging in cities like NYC, cultural competency on the part of service providers becomes ever more important.
The fact that her team speaks Bengali and understands South Asian ways has made a huge difference in her clients lives, says Afroditi Panna, the Case Manager at India Home.
How to deliver Culturally Responsive Care
At India Home, where we have culturally competent and multi-lingual staff like Panna, working with our South Asian elder population, we have found that the culture from which our elders come affects all aspects of their behavior. For example, it affects whether they seek help, the kind of help they seek, the symptoms and concerns they bring to their doctor or their family’s attention. Here are some of the guidelines that our case workers and managers follow in order to become more cuturally responsive:
Maintaining the tradition of respecting elders: A focus on engaging clients in a manner that is consistent with their cultural values and adapting communication to be consistent with the client’s traditions. For example, in Asian and South Asian culture this would entail addressing our elders with a honorific and never by their name. It would also mean case workers listen respectfully (and patiently) so that the elder feels understood and establishes rapport before rushing into the business at hand. It would mean being respectful of cultural norms around touch, personal space and so on.
Involving the Family: Mostofour immigrant elders live with their families and are dependent on them. Individualistic Western methods where the patient is solely responsible for their own welfare may need to be modified for aging South Asian elders. Other family members may have to be made familiar with the treatment process and involved actively in their care. To take Abdul’s case as representative: our case workers engaged with her family members and took the time to talk to them and explain her treatment.
Framing issues in culturally relevant ways: For example, music and art therapy is used in Western practice to reduce tension and stress, but some South Asians older adults may have restrictions based on their religious beliefs on the kind of music or they are allowed to listen to or the art they may practice. A culturally competent case worker may have to advise the Western doctor to come up with alternate methods to help her client to cope.
Facilitatingcollaboration: Many older adults have learned important ways of coping with life’s stress and have developed impressive resilience that is informed not only by their experiences but also by specific cultural beliefs and values. Our case workers learn a lot by showing cultural humility and listening and learning from our clients. These are some of the ways in which India Home’s case management department is developing client-agency interactions. It’s an evolving art Ms. Panna says and her team learns something new every day. But for her, she says:
“cultural competent case management means that for every one of our 75 active cases, our clients feel that we understand their concerns, and that we are treating them with respect. We want them to feel that we hear them.”
Join India Home and the Diverse Elders Coalition for a Twitter chat about cultural competence in aging services on Wednesday, March 21st at 3pm EST. Follow the hashtag #CultCompMatters to join in.
1 Names have been changed to protect privacy of the client.
7. Ten seniors from India Home participated in Advocacy Day at New York’s City Hall and presented their demands to Council Members.
8. We organized a panel at the 2017 South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) Summit in Washington D.C., joining over 300 activists, organizations and community members from across the country to raise our voice on issues important to South Asian communities.
9. Bangladeshi elders from our Desi Senior Center documented their stories in a memoir writing workshop and had their work printed for the occasion.
India Home’s Desi Senior Center held a public reading at the center in Jamaica on December 11th, 2017 to celebrate the culmination of a writing workshop funded by Poets and Writers. Each member of the writing workshop read aloud from a piece written in the class. The classes were led by Sabbin Akhter, a teaching artist, originally from Bangladesh and a writer herself, who taught the class in Bengali. Our elders were very happy to share their work and thrilled to perform for an avid audience of their friends. Speaking on the occasion, Dr. Kalasapudi, India Home’s Executive Director, who is also a geriatric psychiatrist, talked about the positive psychological effects of recalling memories. At the end of the reading, every one of our readers were given a certificate acknowledging their achievements and there was a special cake for the occasion.
Sabbin Akhter, the teaching artist who led the writing workshops, wrote this reflection on her experiences with our elders in the workshop.
India Home held a reading to celebrate the culmination of a writing workshop at Desi Senior Center in Jamaica
A reflection on the Writing Workshop
by Sabbin Akhter, Teaching Artist
When I received the call to lead a writing workshop for desi seniors at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, I was thrilled. I have always been concerned with the lives of the seniors who migrated to the United States, because they are often heavy hearted with the memories they’ve left behind. I also appreciated India Home’s approach to using art to helping seniors lead healthier lives
To be honest, I first thought it would be a challenge to make them write. But to my surprise, I found they expressed themselves with spontaenity. Even though the program lasted only six weeks, I felt like the seniors had a passionate longing to do more.
Every senior received a certificate. Seen here with the elder is Sabbin Akhter, teaching artist, Dr. Kalasapudi, Executive Director, India Home (in purple) and at the mike, Nargis Ahmed, Center Director for India Home’s Desi Senior Center
I tried to design each workshop ssession with a different task. In one workshop they talked and wrote about the natural phenomena and beauty of the villages they had left behind; in another I asked them to write about their loved ones. They told me they loved the exercise where they were asked to compose small stories or personal experiences based on Bangla proverbs and folklore. One time I said, “Write a letter to a long lost friend,” — a prompt I personally loved.
Some of the seniors had doubts if they would succeed at this lost art. “ This is a hard-task,” one senior told me. But the next week I was amazed when they read aloud their imaginary letters to their long lost friends. The sparkle in their eyes and their glowing faces conveyed a lot more than their words. I felt their memories of warm sun playing on the pale grasses, brought them back to life. Our “faded corners were illuminated while walking through the golden lanes of memory, “ one said poetically to me.
At the end of six weeks, we had a reading as the culminating event. The seniors themselves selected a favorite piece to read aloud. They had bonded over sharing their skills in workshop, and on stage they showered each other with love, care and appreciation. As I watched them read, my heart was content looking at their confident and happy faces.
Jamaica, Queens: On November 28, 2017, India Home inaugurated the first ever Dementia Day care program tailored to South Asian immigrants at it’s new facility in Jamaica, Queens.
Titled 3 D, for Desi Dementia Day Care, the facility plans to offer expert care that aligns with South Asian values for older adults suffering from mild to moderate dementia. We expect this new expansion will help to bridge the gap for culturally appropriate dementia -related services in New York city.
With a mandate to “serve all” South Asian seniors, regardless of income, faith or country of origin, for the last 10 years, India Home’s culturally relevant programs have helped immigrant South Asian elders deal with one of the toughest problems of growing old in America – social isolation and loneliness. We hope that the new 3D center will provide a welcome and safe space for South Asian patients experiencing mild to moderate dementia, but also provide a respite to caregivers.
South Asian seniors are among the fastest growing groups of seniors in New York city. According to the Center for an Urban Future’s report in New York City alone, Indians are the second largest immigrant group. Between 2000 and 2010 the population of older immigrants from India grew by 135 percent or about 8000 people. The number of Bangladeshi immigrants from Bangladesh grew in the previous decade by 471%, while the Pakistani populations grew by 38 percent from 2008 to 2011. These immigrants face language and cultural barriers, increased isolation, and higher levels of poverty–all barriers to access needed services like dementia care.
Wide Range of Programs to Meet Growing Need:
Speaking on the occasion, Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, India home’s Executive Director said: “For the past 10 years, India Home has offered South Asian seniors culturally appropriate services in Queens and our expansion into dementia services is driven by the growing need for such services in the South Asian community.”
The 3D Desi Dementia Care center will offer programs specially tailored to help with dementia such as exercise, arts activities, music and sensory therapy. The center will also provide two hot meals a day, counsel families on dementia care and provide a respite for caregivers.
Nahar Alam of the Center of Asian American Health at NYU will assist with outreach in South Asian community in Queens.
Dancing the garba – great for physical and mental fitness
It’s India Independence Day, 2017, and at the celebration being held at Queens Borough Hall in Queens, NY, the young announcer invites the next act to come up on stage. Ten women from India Home file in and start dancing, their bright white, orange and red saris billowing, their feet making dexterous patterns to the insistently upbeat music. The scene is remarkable not for the fact that there are Indian dancers in Queens, but because the women swaying on stage are all between 65 and 85 years old.
It is no coincidence that these women are so fit and vigorous. They have been dancing for years and are living proof of a growing body of research that links participatory arts activities to an increase in the health, well being, and quality of life in aging adults. One study of adults aged 60 and over suggested “health benefits of dance for older adults such as improved cognition and attention, posture and balance, and hand/motor skills in comparison to the control group. ” And it’s not just dance. Createequity, a think tank and online publication “investigating the most important issues in the arts” has analyzed extensive research that shows that taking part in arts related activity benefits older adults in myriad ways.
Singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing (i.e., perceived quality of life)
Playing a musical instrument has myriad positive effects, including dementia risk reduction
Visual arts practice generates increases in social engagement, psychological health and self-esteem
In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts published the results of a landmark multisite (Washington DC metro area, Brooklyn and San Francisco) national study undertaken with the aim of “measuring the impact of professionally conducted community based cultural programs on the general health, mental health, and social activities of older persons, age 65 and older.” Referred to as the Creativity and Aging Study, it was the first effort in this area to use an experimental design and a control group to study 300 participants in the 65-103 age range.
The results were striking. The 150 older adults who were involved in weekly participatory art programs reported: (A) better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; (B) more positive responses on the mental health measures; (C) more involvement in overall activities. The results pointed to the powerful positive effects of community-based programs run by professional artists, now known as Creative Aging Programs.
What in the world is Creative Aging?
Lifetime Arts, a nonprofit organization is very clear on what Creative Aging is not: “it’s not about making macaroni necklaces.” Creative Aging then according to Lifetime Arts is ” the practice of engaging older adults in participatory, professionally run arts programs with a focus on social engagement and skills mastery.” These are programs based in the belief that individuals do not stop growing or learning at any age. They are interventions, and disruptions that help older adults free themselves from traditional and limiting preconceptions about aging and decline and help them discover new possibilities, and new skills.
Learning New Ways of Creative Expression
Drawing with pastels in a class made possible by a grant from Lifetime Arts.
At our Sunnyside Center, Creative Aging classes include photography and drawing workshops, recreational dance, as well as poetry and memoir classes.
At India Home drawing classes are taught by professional artists
Starting in November, a 9-week long drawing workshop, run by Ebenezer Singh, a professional artist and funded through a grant from Lifetime Arts, is introducing elders to advanced drawing using a wide range of materials such as India Ink, carbon pencil, watercolors. The classes also include conversations about historical and contemporary art, and introduces famous Indian artists, thus adding cultural sensitivity to the mix. While some of the participants were unsure of their artistic skills in the beginning, their confidence grows day by day. “I didn’t know I could draw like this,” Shobana Shah said in a recent class. “I’m enjoying learning this very much.”
In a paper published in the journal Arts and Health in 2012, lead researcher Nikky Greer documented improvements in both mental health and social wellbeing, “through increased social engagement, self-awareness, empowerment, and a sense of calm and relaxation.”
Our Sunnyside participants are so enthusiastic about the classes, they take photos of their work with their cell phones, so they can go home and practice before the next week rolls around.
Elders from India Home’s Desi Senior read from their memoirs
Meanwhile, our Desi Senior Center, India Home’s largest center in Jamaica, Queens, offers writing workshops to older Muslim men and women from Bangladesh thanks to a grant from Poets and Writers.
In Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life Story Writing, author Ruth E Ray explains why writing and sharing life stories in groups is valuable from a developmental perspective for older adults. Writing and sharing life stories allows them to not only make public the methods by which they make meaning of their own lives, but also “seeing and hearing others” helps them to understand that they are not alone in that meaning-making process.
At our Desi Senior Center, the ten week memoir course meets for an hour and a half every week, and families and friends are invited to attend the final reading. One recent Thursday, participants were encouraged by their instructor, Sabbin Akhter, a published writer herself, to read aloud from short memoir pieces that the elders had written to illustrate commonly used proverbs in Bangladesh. The readings were lively, full of dialogue and imagery. Lyrical descriptions of trees, cows, fields and the seasons evoked the villages from which the elders had migrated. As each writer in the circle finished reading their piece, the others applauded, shouting encouragement. “You get the first and second prize,” one grandmother told another, clapping her hands in delight. The sense of camaraderie and friendliness between the budding writers is palpable.
Our Approach to Creative Aging is Evolving
India Home is committed to intentionally engaging Creative Aging as a targeted program and our approach continues to evolve. Our aim, as it is with most of our programming, is to focus on creative activities that are culturally appropriate. While it is sometimes challenging to find artists who speak South Asian languages or can offer culturally appropriate art activities, we persist because culturally relevant programming is the most effective way to reach the seniors in our communities.
Still, watching our older adults laugh over a wonderful memory in their notebook, or admire a still life of colorful fruit that they created in an afternoon, or dance on a stage at the Rubin Museum, are reasons enough for us to constantly innovate and continue to offer these programs.
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.