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.
By Rohandeep Arora
Outside the Sikh Gurudwara in Richmond Hill, Queens, I approached an older Sikh man with a turban and a long, flowing beard. “Hello, Uncle!” I said in Punjabi, my mother tongue. “Do you have a couple of spare minutes to fill out a survey on our research for the needs of the South Asian seniors?” “Sure, beta,” he said. He was very pleased to help me out and patiently answered my questions. It was very hot day, and after a while, he invited to his home which was two blocks down from where we were for a cold drink. He sent me on my way with best wishes for my future.
This experience was just one of many similar encounters I and my fellow interns had this summer as we helped gather data for the first ever needs assessment of South Asian seniors in New York City. We were working with India Home, the only professionally staffed nonprofit in the North East that serves South Asian elders, to gather information on a wide range of issues that confront immigrant South Asian seniors.
India Home’s interns fanned out across Queens to interview South Asian elders for a new Needs Assessment Survey this summer. Tenzin is talking to two seniors.
My fellow hardworking interns, Tenzin, Zarifa, Daiyan, Sanjana, Amna and I helped India Home to survey the needs of South Asian seniors in areas of New York City that have high populations of South Asian immigrants like Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Our goal was to understand the requirements of these seniors and make them feel comfortable enough to answer our questions. We surveyed senior citizens who have immigrated from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Guyana, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and other South Asian countries. We visited temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches, senior centers, and spent time in parks and streets in order to gather legitimate data for the needs assessment research.
South Asian Seniors Overlooked and Underserved
South Asian immigrant seniors are part of a demographic that is often overlooked by social service agencies, community providers, and public policy initiatives. They face issues of social isolation, limited English proficiency, poverty, health difficulties, transportation deficits, and more. Even though they are among the fastest growing groups of the older adult population of New York city, South Asian seniors are consistently underserved by government agencies. India Home aims to gather objectively verifiable data to make a strong case for increased focus on South Asian seniors.
Interns who spoke the languages of South Asia
India Home’s interns spoke over 12 languages between them and were competent in diverse South Asian cultures
India Home’s gathered an intern team that was very diverse and multilingual. Between all of us, we spoke close to 12 South Asian languages.
Zarifa Ahmadi (Queensboro Community College), originally from Pakistan, speaks Urdu, Hindi, Dari, Farsi and Pashto.
Tenzin Lama (Baruch College), who is from Nepal, is fluent in Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi.
I am from India and can speak Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu fluently. (Pace University)
Amna Aslam (Vassar College), originally from Pakistan, is fluent in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.
Daiyan Hossain (Hamilton College), originally from Bangladesh, can speak Bengali fluently.
Sanjana Inala (The College of New Jersey), who is from India, speaks Telugu.
Many older adults from South Asia have little or no English proficiency which makes it difficult for them to communicate in this country. That is why our abilities in multiple languages paid off when we encountered elders who were not proficient in English. My team and I did not face any problems in talking to elders and translating the surveys to them. Even those seniors who could speak some English were happy to have us approach them in their native tongue.
“Quite a few seniors have adjusted themselves to the city’s lifestyle but still miss the friendliness and warm community relationships in their native lands. Most of them get very excited when we approach the seniors with their mother tongue and are pleased to help us by participating in the survey,” said Tenzin Lama.
Even though we came from different backgrounds and cultures, we enjoyed each other’s company, whether we were working or taking a day off to enjoy the summer in NYC.
What is the survey about?
“What is the survey about” was the very first question the elders invariably asked us. We would tell them that the survey asked detailed questions related to the lifestyle of South Asian seniors, like marital status, age, year of immigration, a reason of immigration, income, housing status, health related questions, social security income and much more. “The surveys are anonymous and records no personal information of the respondents,” we would reassure them.
We made sure our elder participants in the Needs Assessment Survey were comfortable. Daiyan is interviewing a senior.
Challenges in the Field
One of the biggest challenge we faced was convincing the seniors we met that taking the survey would not harm them in any way. Despite repeated assurances that their responses were anonymous, many elder respondents were scared. Some were undocumented or had a distrust of government. The lack of literacy among immigrant seniors was also reason why it was hard for our interns to persuade elders to take the survey. However, we were trained to combat this distrust and fear. For instance, our team was trained to greet elders appropriately and with respect according to the cultural norms of their respective cultures. Thus we would fold our hands in a namaste while approaching Indian elders or say tashi delek to greet Tibetan elders.
I like to think that our cultural competence helped to put the elders at ease. “Sometimes elders need that support from someone to move on from a tragedy or depression if they have any. Sometimes they want to share some tragic experience,” Sanjana said.
The other thing we did well was listen – sometimes to much more than just answers to our questions. “Most of the senior citizens we surveyed were very friendly and warm. I think they tend to feel lonely when their families aren’t home which makes the seniors more than happy to communicate and share their experiences with someone” said Sanjana.
Funding for the needs assessment was generously provided by New York Community Trust and SAALT We Build Community.
For 75 years the Voice of America – VOA has been the the official news source of the United States government and provides news and information in 47 languages to a weekly audience of more than 236.6 million people on 5 continents around the world. Last week they did a multi-media segment on India Home.
“Among New York City residents over the age of 65, the immigrant population accounts for 49.5 percent, up from 38 percent in 2000, and growing. Facing language and cultural barriers, increased isolation, and higher levels of poverty than their native-born counterparts, the rapid expansion has taken its toll on both immigrants and the small, cash-strapped organizations that serve them….
“But Lakshman Kalasapudi, deputy director of India Home, says there is a misconception that South Asian immigrants who arrive as older adults are “fully taken care of” when they live with their children.
“This financial dependency kind of creates family tensions, especially when the seniors are living in overcrowded situations,” Kalasapudi says. “There becomes a real breakdown in the family structure and it really profoundly negatively affects the seniors’ mental health.”
“India Home is a secular organization that depends heavily on community donations and discretionary funding from local council members. It confronts social isolation and loneliness among South Asian elders. But it does so by partnering with existing centers, including Jamaica Muslim Center.”
To read more click here: https://www.voanews.com/a/aging-new-york-immigrants-confront-shortage-of-culturally-appropriate-services/3959423.html
A Know Your Rights poster from IDP (Immigrant Defense Project) that we used in our trainings
What do you when officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) come to your home? If you are stopped in the street by police and asked for your immigration status? What are your rights as an immigrant in these perilous times? These and other questions were part of a series of KYR (Know Your Rights) trainings that India Home conducted with our elders, almost all of whom are immigrants to the country. Most of our seniors are citizens, or, having immigrated here on family quotas, hold green cards.
However, after the change in federal administration, they have heard rumors about ICE raids and have questions about immigration status. There is much rumor and conjecture and fear. India Home staff have in the past few months undergone KYR Immigration Information Training and were prepared to pass on the knowledge. We also brought in Cyrus Mehta, a well known lawyer, and Professor Alina Das from NYU Law School on different occasions to inform and reassure our elders of their rights as immigrants.
The message we wanted to get across was simple enough: 1. Everyone has rights under the constitution of the United States and it’s important . 2. You have the right to remain silent 3. You have the right to an attorney and to see a warrant and so on.
Cyrus Mehta, an immigration lawyer, speaks to our elders at the Desi Senior Center about their immigration rights
At Sunnyside Community Center, India Home staff who had training, chose to create a skit of sorts where some volunteers enacted an ICE Raid. Some were ICE officers and some were immigrants and when “officers” asked the “residents” to open up, they practiced saying things like “I choose to remain silent,” and “I would like to talk to my attorney.”
Cyrus Mehta, an immigration lawyer distributed flyers at the Desi Senior Center emphasized his message that all people in the United States, even the undocumented have rights and patiently answered the many questions from our seniors.
Alina Das is an Associate Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law, where she co-teaches and co-directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic. She and her clinic students represent immigrants and community organizations in litigation and advocacy to advance immigrant rights locally and across the country. Professor Das visited our Desi Senior Center in February, and her students demonstrated an ICE raid and the correct responses in such situations.
At our Richmond Hill location, we invited the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) to come in and discuss rights for immigrant New Yorkers and reassure everything that the city is committed to being a sanctuary city for all. MOIA representatives further stressed the need for IDNYC and how beneficial it is for immigrants.
Prof. Alina Das and her clinic students came to Desi Senior Center to talk to elders about their rights as immigrants
To evaluate the learning, India Home staff asked the elders to repeat, a few days later, what had been taught. They repeated the main points of the teaching. A lesson well learned, perhaps, and an useful one at that!