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.
The elder patrons of our Sunnyside Center celebrated the end of their Drawing Workshop with an exhibition of their paintings at Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens. For eight weeks they had learned what Ebenezer Singh, the teaching artist leading the classes, called, “Pen and Ink Wash, Dry Pastel and Water Color techniques.”
Black and white ink wash drawings created by India Home’s elders
Dr. Kalasapudi (Executive Director, India Home) and Kamala Motihar (Board Member), and Ebenezer Singh (teaching artist) admire the art being exhibited
Our elder participants each received a certificate
Classes taught by a professional artist
Run by Ebenezer Singh, a highly-acclaimed professional artist and funded through a grant from Lifetime Arts, the classes introduced our elders to advanced drawing using a wide range of materials such as India Ink, carbon pencil, watercolors. The classes also included conversations about historical and contemporary art, and introduced 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 grew day by day as they practiced the different techniques. “I didn’t know I could draw like this,” Shobana Shah said in a recent class. “I’m enjoying learning this very much.”
“I had to wait 68 years to discover I could draw.”
At the exhibition, we created a gallery of their art, and celebrated their achievements with certificates, chai and pakoras! It was wonderful to have so many of their family and friends join the celebration and stroll along enjoying the art on the walls. Some of the elders spoke about their experiences: “We looked forward to the class every week,” Prabha Basin, one of the participants said.
“I had to wait 68 years to discover I could draw. Now I want to keep doing it.” Bharat Shah said. His wife, Usha Shah, marveled at how she went from being ” zero in drawing,” to creating the beautiful work on the walls. These words from our elders were exactly what we hoped to hear when we started this experiment in creative aging!
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.
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.
India Home’s elders enact the aarthi worship ritual asking Ganesh, the elephant headed Hindu god,for intervention against obstruction
Lord Ganesh, the roly-poly, elephant-headed Hindu God is beloved of devotees not only across India, but also Nepal, Tibet and other Himalayan communities. As part of India Home’s on-going partnership with the Rubin Museum of Himalayan culture in Manhattan, our members, immigrants from India and Nepal presented a program for the Himalayan Heritage unit on their relationship with Ganesh.
The audience was diverse and was made up of people who ran the gamut from those who loved Himalayan culture and had visited India or Nepal several times, to curious folks who had wandered in out of a cold, rainy evening.
Rameshwor Koirala, a Nepali elder spoke of diverse traditions and memories
What they got were stories: childhood memories of waiting for hours in line to catch a glimpse of the most famous Ganesh statue in all of Bombay; a Nepali myth of Ganesh incarnated as a warrior God who breaks his tusk to throws it at the jeering moon; and surprising accounts of Tantric offerings of meat and whisky from Renu Shreshta, a member of the Newari community of Nepal.
Renu Shreshta, an immigrant elder from the Newari community in Nepal, related myths about Ganesh and her community’s unique rituals that include offerings of meat and whisky.
India Home elder Kaveri Amma sings a praise song to Lord Ganesha at the Rubin Museum event
Our elders also enacted the rituals of worship, wether it was the installation of a tiny statue of Ganesh, or the “visarjan” or immersion that is part of the cycle of the celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi (Ganesh’s Birthday). Meera Venugopal, India Home’s staff explained how the clay body of the God animated by the ardor of worship is returned to nature by being immersed in moving water. Just as our bodies are returned to the elements through death, so too Ganesh is sent off on his journey, only to be welcomed again next year.
India Home elders enact workshop rituals celebrating Ganesh’s birthday at Rubin Museum
The program ended in true South Asian fashion with feasting–there were samosas, hot tea, and laddoos, beloved sweetmeat of Ganesh.
India Home’s elders chanted and played the dholak drum as they led the audience around the room in a playful farewell to Lord Ganesh
Rubin Museum’s Assistant Manager of Cultural Programs and Partnerships, Tashi Chodron, welcomed a full house to the program
Once again Rubin Museum’s audiences had an opportunity to experience a culture through the authentic medium of stories of lived experience. Our elders were thrilled to share their lives, perform and be seen as active, talented story-tellers and performers.
They danced on the stage, they danced in the street, they danced in front of our table. They were India Home’s wonderful senior ladies and nothing was going to stop them. Not the heat or the crowds or their sore feet. Our wonderful seniors had come prepared to be the life and soul of the Annual Rubin Block Party and they gave it their all.
Our seniors taught everyone, from the littlest guests to seniors like them, how to use the dandiya sticks. They demonstrated garba dance steps. They let people admire their beautiful chaniya choli (skirts and blouses) or saris. They also got the entire crowd to join in the dancing at one point.
On a more serious note, our immigrant seniors who are also people of color, are sending a a very important message by participating in giant public events like the Rubin Block Party. Their very presence in these spaces demonstrates that older people of color are active and engaged in public life, that aging is what you make it to be. Their visibility helps to break down prejudices and benign ignorance around aging and seniors of color, and forces people to change their perspectives. Our mission is to challenge the stereotypes around aging, and we are grateful to the Rubin Museum for helping us realize it.
India Home marked the beginning of Ramadan by celebrating our members’ achievements
The elders were dressed in fancy saris and kurtas. Their grandchildren played catch in the back of the room and were shushed by their mothers. The aroma of fried snacks was everywhere.
It was the beginning of Ramadan and India Home’s Desi Senior Center hosted a night of poetry, songs, and a meal to celebrate before the elders entered a period of fasting in Jamaica. The venue and dinner were generously donated by Exit Alliance Realty, a well known real estate company in New York. Mr. Azahar Haque and his colleagues were gracious hosts for the entire night.
India Home published an anthology of poetry written by our elders
The elders from the center were also celebrating the completion of a successful writing workshop. We wrote about it here. One by one they went up on stage and recited their poems. Some others, sang songs about their beloved Bangladesh. Some told jokes or spoke on a favorite topic.
Council Member Daneek Miller was the Guest of Honor at the Ramadan Celebration at India Home’s Desi Senior Center
Councilmember I. Daneek Miller was the Guest of Honor and he gave away certificates marking the completion of the Writing Workshop to the elders. He said he was happy to see how well the elders were doing. He also officially released the booklet of elders writings that India Home had printed.
Nargis Ahmed, the Center Director of Desi Senior Center, who had expertly managed the ceremonies then introduced a professional singer who took the stage and sang popular songs late into the night.
Elders at the celebration marking the beginning of Ramadan at the Desi Senior Center
The elders left late after a hearty dinner of favorite Bengali dishes, some carrying their sleeping grandchildren and the book with their poetry. A month of fasting, austerity and prayer lay ahead, but the night’s celebration had been a feast in every way.
Until eight weeks ago, Rabeya Khanom had never used the internet. “I didn’t know anything about it,” she told me. She had just said goodbye to her computer teacher at India Home’s Desi Senior Center and was feeling a mix of emotions. Sadness because the free 8-week long computer class was ending. But also happiness because, as she pointed out, she could now, “email, and send photographs, buy ticket from travel sites, book hotel.”
Muslim elders at India Home’s Desi Senior Center use a manual in Bengali to learn computers
Rabeya Khanom, 72, is a student with eight other Bangladeshi seniors in the free computer classes offered by India Home, in partnership with OATS, an award winning New York City nonprofit (the acronym stands for Older Adults Technology Services). OATS provides free tech training for seniors.
The class at India Home was the first and only computer training especially geared toward Bengali older adults in New York city.
“We wanted to be responsive to the unique needs of each site we partner with,” Alex Glazebrook told me. He is the Director of Technology and Training at OATS. Most of the seniors at the Desi Senior Center are immigrants from Bangladesh, hence OATS hired a Bengali speaking computer teacher, Umme Mahmud, to teach the classes.
Council Member Rory Lancman’s Grant Helps Teach Computers in Bengali
A grant from Council Member Rory Lancman, who represents New York’s District 24, helped to pay for the teacher. “In today’s interconnected world, we need to empower as many people as possible with the skills needed to use modern technology, especially senior citizens. I am incredibly proud to provide OATS funding to the Desi Senior Center to enable local seniors to take part in computer classes this year.” Lancman emailed.
Thanks to Council Member Lancman’s grant, OATS was also able to translate the manual used in the classes into Bengali. An effort, Glazebrook acknowledged, “was not an easy undertaking.” Still, everyone involved felt that a manual in Bengali was necessary for this demographic since, as Glazebrook noted “Language is a huge barrier to getting online.”
Computer classes at India Home’s Desi Senior Center teach Muslim elders practical skills
Barriers to learning
When it comes to older adults and technology though, language is only one of the barriers.
Household income, education, language abilities, computer anxiety, lack of confidence in their skills, also prevent older adults from going online.
In 2016, Pew Research Center reported that while fully 87% of seniors living in households earning $75,000 or more a year say they have home broadband, just 27% of seniors whose annual household income is below $30,000 are online. Many of the seniors at the Desi Senior Center are immigrant seniors, below poverty, and Low English Proficient. For them, the free computer training offered by Desi Senior Center and OATS opens up a world that they would not have access to otherwise.
When I visited the class, the seniors were seated around rectangular tables in a red-carpeted room. The women were on one side and the men on another, in keeping with Muslim customs. As the elders stared intently at the screens of their laptops, Umme Mahmud, the instructor, helped the seniors to look for travel sites on the internet. She was teaching them how to find cheap tickets, something that would come in useful to find flights in the future, for instance, to Bangladesh.
Learning Practical Skills
The computer training manual was translated into Bengali thanks to a grant from Council Member Rory Lancman of District 24 in NYC.
The OATS curriculum aims to help seniors harness the power of technology toward achieving practical outcomes. “ I teach them how to research medical insurance, find answers to medical questions, email, read the news,” Ms. Mahmud said. They learn the basic technological skills that could be applied to their daily lives. A majority of the seniors around the table were highly educated, and many had college degrees from Bangladesh. But they felt left out of modern methods of communication. Some seniors didn’t even know how to retrieve text messages. But, Ms. Mahmud said, because they are eager to learn, they learn quickly. “It is my hope that the seniors who participated in these classes will now be able to access the digital world right at their fingertips,” CM Lancman wrote.
The seniors at the Desi Senior Center sure seemed headed that way. Sukhtar Begum had recently started to read the Koran on line. Another student, Mohammad Haque, 70, rattled off the names of his favorite newspapers in Bengali, “Jugaltok, Probash, Aajkal.” “Also Google news,” he said. Abdul Mannan, 62, has gone a step farther : “I never used email, but yesterday I sent an email by myself.” He smiled and shrugged. “To the teacher, but I sent email,” he said.
Increased confidence and self-worth
The classes are doing more than just teaching these elders practical skills; their attempt at mastering technology was making an enormous difference in their lives in other profound ways. Ask Ms. Khanum, the 72 year old OATS alumuna. “If I need something,” she said, referring to searching the internet. “I don’t have to bother no one at home.” The confidence in her abilities had clearly increased as a result of the classes.
Ms. Mahmud pointed out an even more valuable benefit of the classes. “All their connections are back home in Bangladesh. Their past, their entertainment, everything is in Bangladesh. Older people get depressed so easily, sometimes they feel that they have no value.” But with these classes things had changed, she said.
“Now they feel connected with the world.”
Computers for the computer classes were generously funded through the New York City Department of the Aging (DFTA) at the discretion of DFTA Commissioner Dr. Donna Corrado.
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.
India Home’s program at the Rubin Museum was featured on the Museum’s blog.
India Home believes in providing creative aging programs that offer opportunities for our seniors to actively express themselves creatively, socialize with their peers while learning new skills, and engage in cultural performances.
…and a partnership with the Rubin Museum.
Sharan Bir Kaur led the crowd in a Kundalini chant
As part of this creative aging effort we have forged a partnership with the prestigious Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in Manhattan. In our role as Community Partner, we’ve presented programs related to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and Mahavir Jayanthi.
This is our third event
On April 15, 2017, we presented our third program at the Museum: a celebration of the Sikh festival, Vaisakhi, traditionally a rite that marks the end of the harvest season in India. We hosted the event along the Sikh Cultural Center, one of the biggest Gurudwaras, or Sikh place of worship, in New York City.
This is how our program was described on the Rubin Museum’s blog.