As I sat in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, the woman sitting opposite confided to me her father’s story. “I brought my father here for two years before he passed away. In the few years that he lived with me in America, he changed drastically. He was a tall man, who started to shrink physically. In our hometown near Delhi, he ran a business, and was consulted on matters related to the local temple. He would not hesitate to voice strong opinions. Over time, he stopped voicing his opinion about any matter. He lost that feeling of community, and felt isolated here. His silent trauma probably had an effect on how he shrank physically in front of my very eyes,” she said, her eyes turning moist. I had never met this woman until then, and the fact that she confided her despair to a stranger underscores the silent but epic struggle that takes place within immigrant homes as seniors move to America to live with their children. Living in America, far from their homes, has untold effects on immigrant seniors. They face problems related to mobility, transportation, language, and an overall feeling of dislocation.
The City of Fremont recently won a $300,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to specifically address the myriad problems facing seniors in immigrant and ethnically diverse communities. The two-year grant will fund the Community Ambassador Program for Seniors (CAPS).
“We began this project by soliciting opinions from immigrant seniors through several focus groups,” says Asha Chandra, the project coordinator for the City of Fremont. Some of the comments that they received were:
“Our children and grandchildren are too busy with their lives. Here, we feel lonely, depressed, and very dependent on them.”
“Language is a barrier to access services for seniors. We wish that many of the forms such as Medicare, Social Security etc. could be available in Punjabi.”
“I am so bored here. I wish I were able to work, but I can’t find employment due to my visa status.”
Of all the responses they received, Chandra says that they were surprised to see a large number of seniors who wanted to use their professional skills and training in this new environment instead of only thinking about a life of leisure.
To know about various choices that can help optimize their lifestyles here, seniors can think of the city as a resource, but cultural norms prevent them from doing so.
So the City of Fremont will work collaboratively with five community organizations—India Community Center, Muslim Support Network, Sikhs Engaged in Volunteer Activities, Taiwanese Senior Association, and the Centerville Presbyterian Church. CAPS will help serve seniors in their own communities, using a set of familiar cultural norms.
“Partnering with organizations that already have strong ties within their respective communities will be the best way for us to reach seniors using a ‘viral’ strategy for information dissemination to reach our overall goals,” says Chandra.
A site coordinator will be chosen to represent each of the five organizations. These site coordinators will recruit 10 volunteer ambassadors within their communities. The site coordinators and the ambassadors will receive training from city officials, using a curriculum developed jointly by Stanford University Geriatric Education Center and San Jose State University researchers. Once this is done, the ambassadors will work actively to inform seniors within their own communities, especially the frail and homebound seniors, about city services in the areas of health, health education, mobility, and language services. The overall goal is to increase use of available city services to help make seniors’ lives fruitful and imbued with a sense of purpose.
“When I moved to Fremont, I contacted the city and have been involved in helping them with the 4th of July parades,” says Jagmeet Kaur of Sikhs Engaged in Volunteer Activities. “Through my involvement with city officials, I have also learnt about various senior programs. Many immigrants do not view the city as a resource. Culturally, they are accustomed to approaching family members for everything.”
These cultural barriers remain the same among immigrant populations, regardless of ethnic differences. Moina Shaiq, who volunteers for Muslim Support Network, says, “When we sit down together to talk about issues facing seniors in our communities, I am always astounded to find the similarities across ethnic and cultural differences.”
If the problems are similar, then any knowledge about effective solutions becomes valuable for all the organizations. “Our five partners have been involved with providing services for seniors in the past. We hope that this grant will allow them to share best practices, so that the benefits can extend across the communities,” says Chandra.
The knowledge base built through the seniors programs held at the India Community Center (ICC) over the past five years is something Vishnu Sharma is proud of. “Every week, our program serves over 300 seniors,” he says about the senior programs being held at Milpitas and Sunnyvale. Clearly, the fact that there is a physical space where seniors can congregate relieves some of the boredom and isolation that they feel.
“Seniors feel that they are not economically independent,” adds Sharma. “Watching television all day leads to a feeling of low self-worth and despondency. Even getting ready for a Mother’s Day celebration at ICC helps them feel a sense of purpose to the day.”
The volunteer ambassadors representing ICC will help reach homebound seniors who have not been able to benefit from the programs being offered currently at ICC. There are plans to compile a resource guide aimed at seniors, which will have information related to hospitals, transportation, and long term care.
As immigrants, we solicit information on behalf of our children and help build active support networks for them within our communities. We need to adopt similar attitudes to meet the needs of seniors within our communities, helping them live active, fulfilling lives through their golden years.
|Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is on the editorial board of India Currents.|