Aging In America: An Indian Immigrant Perspective

Abandoned at a mall

A while ago I heard a disturbing story about an elderly Indian couple abandoned by their son at an American mall. He dropped his parents off in the morning, and they roamed the mall until late at night. They did not know how to get transportation home and had no money for a taxi.

Finally, as the mall was closing, their son’s friend unexpectedly came by where they sat, despondently, on a bench. It was late in the evening. They told him they had been waiting for their son for the last 8 hours. When the friend called their son and asked, “Did you forget to pick up your parents at the mall?” he was quiet for a bit. Then he burst out, “Why don’t you keep them then, since you are so interested in their welfare?”

This incident, although rare, reflects one of the troubling issues South Asian seniors face today, as they grow old in America. The lack of reasonable eldercare available to ‘silver senior’ immigrants who become increasingly dependent on their offspring for their well-being.

The immigrant wave is graying

Although the U.S. is one of the youngest countries in the world, it’s in the middle of a grey explosion. Older adults or ‘senior’ citizens will form 21% of the population by 2030. Indian immigrants are part of this fast-growing cohort of silver seniors. Many arrived in the surge of immigration that began in the 1960s after Congress loosened restrictions on non-white applications for green cards.  

This first wave of Indian immigrants arrived, eager and energetic, to a country they believed would offer golden opportunities for wealth and advancement.

Their immigrant dreams were straightforward: work hard, save, buy a house, send money to family back home, and then retire in their hometowns.

They came with suitcases filled with precious dals and spices, items unavailable in the overstuffed cornucopias of American supermarkets. They spoke nostalgically of home, harboring abstract dreams of returning someday.

Other Indian immigrants came for the sophisticated higher education the U.S. offered. It funneled them into a system that rewarded and valued their skills more highly than India could.

As decades rolled on, they raised children who began families of their own. Now, this pioneering generation of older Indians is in their 70s and 80s. Many find themselves dependent on their children and the social support structure on offer for older, retired adults. Unfortunately, the gap between family and the U.S. eldercare system traps Indian seniors in a difficult and unprecedented situation.

Multigenerational living isn’t mainstream

The Indian cultural system isn’t designed for Western-style, independent aging. Typically, a traditional multigenerational household, with grandparents, adult children, and grandchildren all living under the same roof is not a mainstream American way of life.

Among the Indian immigrant community, as in India, the social shame involved in “putting your parents away in a retirement home,” still prevails.

The son who left his parents in the mall may have used it as an ‘elder sitting’ alternative to leaving his parents at home, alone, all day. Although this callous behavior is inexcusable, the real issue is that immigrant families like his, who take care of aging parents at home, have very little recourse to eldercare resources.

They face an extremely short supply of professionally run spaces that South Asian seniors can easily access. Many parents are not mobile and have limited means to find transportation.

Existing senior centers do not offer the cultural and social support of a peer group, like the extended family that aging seniors could have expected back in India.

This is especially true for the growing ranks of seniors who’ve immigrated to the U.S. later in life, often to be with their children.  

Elder Sitting, Indian style

Payal Sawhney, a social worker at Saahas For A Cause, a non-profit in suburban Los Angeles that provides support services to South Asians, says that adult children often use malls to “babysit” elderly parents when they are busy or don’t want to take them along to social functions.

“The results can be disastrous, especially if the parents have ailments which require monitoring like blood pressure and diabetes. While the local American population is well organized towards independent aging, many South Asian seniors, find it hard to jell with the unfamiliar culture and cuisine in local senior centers,” adds Sawhney.    

“Isolation and loneliness, and the resulting depression, are major issues facing South Asian seniors today,” Sawhney emphasizes.

Tagalong Grandparents

When Sawhney lived in Cincinnati in 1992, she noticed that parents of friends and other seniors did not have access to a community of their own. They were ‘tagalongs’ with their children, and would often simply sit quietly in a corner, even at parties.

Unacknowledged depression was a troubling issue.

 “You can be lonely even in the bosom of your own family,” Sawhney says. “Young families today are too busy to spare much time for their at-home senior, and many don’t have the extended network which provided social and emotional support back home. And Indian parents don’t like to complain or talk about their emotions.”

Worried by the isolation of the seniors they observed, Sawhney and two other friends sent invites to local, elderly South Asians in their Cincinnati circle, for an afternoon of community connection – “tea and samosas” in Sawhney’s basement.

Tea and Samosas for Seniors

As word of the afternoon tea spread, it drew a tremendous response – an indication of the desperate need for human connection.

Eventually, Sawhney’s afternoon teas” evolved into an organized program that offered fun activities, classes, and information about local resources for seniors.

“Some of the favorite activities are games like Antakshari,” says Geeta Mehan, who currently runs the program. “However, we always have a talk or a short class on a wide variety of topics relevant to their age group. For example, managing personal finances, meditation, chair yoga, and health-related topics. It’s a delight to see how engaged the attendees are, and how competitive they become when they play games.”  

The program also provides desi food cooked by volunteers or catered and heavily discounted.

Apna Sapna

This grassroots initiative, now called Apna Sapna (Our Dreams), focuses on building a senior community. The seniors suggested and chose the name ‘Apna Sapna’ themselves.

“We’ve never had to struggle for a space or provide food or activities. We’ve had an enormous community response of volunteers, who’ve given their time and money, and opened their homes to this program,” says Mehan. “The value to the community in the simple prevention of mental health decline and depression in this elderly population is priceless.”

  • The image shows 7 women and one man standing behind a table decorated with pictures and flowers.
  • The image shows three women and two men standing behind a table which has pictures and flowers,.
  • The picture shows a woman holding a microphone
  • The image shows a woman standing behind a table.
  • The image shows two men and a woman standing behind a table

 Organizations like Apna Sapna have sprouted all over the US in the past few decades, to provide community spaces for South Indian seniors. Besides food and camaraderie, they are also sources of information on support services of all kinds and how to access them. 

This can be a lifeline for those who may experience subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) forms of financial and emotional abuse within their own families and are too ignorant, or too afraid, to speak out or criticize their own children.  

Part 2: Prevalence of elder abuse in the South Asian community coming soon

This article was published as part of a series – the Desi Golden Years Project – on aging in the South Asian Community, made possible with funding from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF). The views expressed on this website and other materials produced by India Currents do not necessarily reflect the official policies of SVCF.

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Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.