There’s no doubt that India is changing—its culture, its economy, and its population’s lifespan are finding new bounds. According to data gathered by the World Bank, life expectancy in India has grown from slightly over 40 in 1960 to approximately 65 in 2009. Outmigration, which takes many young people abroad and often leaves behind aging parents, is altering how the elderly are cared for in their last years. And those with their parents or parents-in-law in the United States often find themselves juggling a much more demanding work and home schedule while trying to make certain the aging adult feels like an integral part of the household and the community.
Caregiving, and its demands, is a taboo subject in the South Asian community, says Rashmi Gupta, an assistant professor of social work at San Francisco State University and a gerontologist. “They feel it is not up for discussion. People will say, ‘This is our tradition—whether here or in India. It’s our tradition to provide care to the elderly. It’s written in our dharma, in our epics, in our holy books!’” However, Gupta argues, her studies have shown that caregivers in the United States and in India do feel the burden and the elderly often feel depressed and alienated.
Day programs help in keeping the older adult active and social, such as those at India Community Center in Milpitas and Cupertino and at the Hindu Community and Cultural Center in Livermore, but Gupta says the research demonstrates that South Asian senior residential facilities are greatly needed for elders who have specific language or cultural needs.Though this demographic was long overlooked by researchers, Gupta says interest is growing. “I was one of the first ones to be doing aging research on this population, and now there are at least seven or eight people doing research on South Asians in the United States. And we meet regularly at GSA (Gerontological Society of America) meetings.”
The GSA, which was established in 1945 and currently boasts over 5,000 members, held its 64th annual Scientific Meeting on Nov. 18-22, 2011, in Boston. Gupta presented at the conference, as she has every year since 1996. At 2005’s meeting, she cofounded the GSA’s Aging In Asia Interest Group (AIAIG). Gupta says that she finds the experience invaluable. “Aging in Asia is a network of academics and practitioners who are doing anything related to aging in any of the Asian countries. It is a resourceful group because we have people from all over who are doing aging research in different parts of the world.”
Another AIAIG member who also presented at the Boston conference, Tannistha Samanta, says she appreciates the connections made with other researchers in the field. “I feel that the GSA conference is a very good platform for potential networking and collaborative activities. The presentation topics at the conference ranged from biomedical sciences to epidemiology to demography.” The “eclectic mix of experts” allows a unique platform to present one’s own research, she says.
Samanta is an assistant professor at the department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, India. She specializes in employing quantitative methods to study health, social demography, aging, and stratification, focusing primarily on South Asia.Samanta spoke on the “Global Perspectives on Intergenerational Support” panel, which “covered issues relating to health care of the elderly as well as care and support of the elderly from both developing and developed world including Japan, India, Taiwan, China, and the United Kingdom,” she says.“My talk focused on how living arrangements shaped health outcomes among the elderly in India. The substantive finding of my research is that multigenerational co-residential families, or living with one’s children, have protective effects on elderly health,” she says. “However, part of this ‘co-resident advantage’ can be explained by the fact these elderly also reside in wealthier households and are typically located in urban areas, with presumably better access and availability of health care.”
Gupta’s talk at the conference, “Joy and Burden of Care Giving in India: Implications for Service Providers,” focused on the modernization of India in terms of women leaving home for work and how that shift affects home-based eldercare in India. Caregivers who felt overwhelmed and elders who were in poor physical and mental health conditions were assessed as having a “burden.”
Gupta, who has been a reviewer of several academic gerontological journals and is also a member of the American Society on Aging, has validated several instruments through her research, including scales on burden, caregiving, depression, and relationship quality. “People ask for those scales, so that is another way of disseminating information, besides just the presentation.”
The need for such discussions and studies is evident by Aging in Asia’s quickly increasing numbers. “We started with 20 academics and practitioners a few years ago, and now we have 55 to 60 steady members,” Gupta says. Due to that, GSA will raise the group’s status from an informal group to a formal one at this year’s conference. “Our force is being recognized!” Gupta says, smiling.
This article is part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and The Gerontological Society of America.
Nadia Maiwandi works as a communications and development associate for a nonprofit organization in San Francisco. She is also the former events editor for India Currents.