Passing Culture Through the Generations

“This is nearly 80-year-old culture! Now I am passing it on to you.” 

Mavshi (maternal aunt in Marathi ) handed me a teaspoon of freshly set yogurt in a small container.  I had met Mavshi at a cultural event when I first arrived in Atlanta. I’d helped her climb down a few stairs. What began that day was a beautiful bond that is now a year old.

We smiled and exchanged phone numbers and in no time at all, I acquired a new aunt in Atlanta. 

Mavshi has lived in Canada and the U.S for over 50 years. In those early days, Indian yogurt was hard to come by in local grocery stores. On one of her yearly trips home, Mavshi’s mother gave her a tiny spoonful of yogurt to take back to the U.S. From that spoonful which arrived from across the ocean all those years ago, Mavshi continues to make yogurt even today. 

Imagine! That starter culture began its journey more than 80 years ago in her grandmother’s kitchen, before it eventually made its way to mine in a little act of kindness!

This is how culture is passed down, quite literally. From Mavshi I learned to set yogurt. Her story and a spoonful of yogurt entered my life to nourish my family. 

I am in awe of this connection!

Intergenerational Interaction Among Desis Immigrants

My relationship with Mavshi is a wonderful example of intergenerational interaction among Indian immigrants in the U.S.

In many families, an older generation of Indian immigrants stays alone, mostly by themselves, far away from their children who live and work elsewhere in the country. 

But it’s giving rise to new models of intergenerational living, where local families of Indian origin create a supportive circle around them.

I have many such senior citizen friends – my aunts and uncles by proxy because they love these familial titles.

If they fall ill, a local volunteer group  will send them food, run their errands and help clean their homes. In return the older generation shares tips on everything from parenting, and marriage, to investments, and gardening! They are homegrown experts now nurturing us newcomers.

It’s a new age structure for Indian immigrant seniors living  far away from their families scattered across the U.S. – an opportunity to grow old with a caring circle of young families around them.

But not every desi senior, whether in India or the US, is fortunate to have a safety net that helps them age in place and live a purposeful life.

Joint Family Life in India

Growing up in a joint family in Pune, we lived together with my grandparents, uncles, and aunts.

It felt natural to be cared for by all family members. My first playmates were my cousins. Grandparents provided us grandchildren with a steady supply of treats, stories, and games. They supervised our homework, taught us about art and culture, and gave us their undivided attention.  

Indian grandparents

It’s only when I moved to Mumbai to work that I first encountered the nuclear family concept.

For the first time I realized that grandparents were not part of the family unit. I saw children sent to daycare or staying home with caretakers, while older couples lived alone.

At the time I was working at a local non-profit for senior citizens where I learned about the lives of urban seniors in a busy metropolis like Mumbai. 

I will always remember one couple – a retired corporate executive whose wife was a retired professor. Their only child lived in the U.S. 

The husband was physically fit and financially stable but began to experience early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. He began wandering away without warning. The diagnosis shocked and frightened his wife, but slowly she began to create a new routine around this painful new reality, as Alzheimer’s upturned their retirement and independent living plans. 

I also knew a young couple who were trying to conceive, with the help of medical intervention. They had no relatives in the city. 

It got me thinking. What if these two families, struggling with their realities, could come together to find help and hope in each other?

Finding my U.S Family Ties

When my husband and I immigrated to US with our 9-month-old, my father-in-law helped care for our baby while we navigated our way into new country. My father-in-law’s return to India threw us headfirst into a new reality – a society which demanded independence in living our daily life. As Indian immigrants into a Western culture, we were forced to adopt a individualistic mentality that felt alien.

This notion was reinforced on visa documents which view only spouses and offspring as ‘family’. Parents are excluded from that nuclear family unit.

As an Indian it made me feel uneasy.  My family has always included grandparents and cousins at the very least. To most Indian immigrants, family is the smallest building block or “cell” of society.

And yet, the past 40 years has changed the composition of this cell, its impact felt both by the older couple coping with Alzheimer’s, and the young couple trying to have a baby, each without the support of their extended family.

Grandparents are now visitors to the family, not an integral part of it. It was disturbing to realize that we were now a part of this equation! 

It Takes a New Kind of Village

But I was fortunate in my Cleveland neighborhood. Soon enough the multi-generational bond was fostered with my neighbors. My baby grew up listening to Ukrainian songs, eating Polish food, and dozing off to Japanese lullabies. 

My challenge was to invite new bonds that came from different generations and nationalities.

As immigrants we need to be open to these new social experiments, creating a new village to raise our children and care for our seniors. I believe this arrangement is symbiotic, not selfish in nature. 

The Sting of Loneliness in Old Age

Multigenerational living in the most accurate context involves staying together under one roof, but given the reality of this era, a loosely-formed circle of caring friends should also count as part of the multigenerational experiment. 

In mono-generational and bi-generational families, social media echo chambers often replace family discussion. Sometimes, older people don’t like asking for help. Quite often no one is around to catch their changing moods and dispositions.

In an article for Think, Dr. Olimpia Paun pointed out that when she worked as psychiatric visiting nurse, she was the only human being many of her homebound patients interacted with, apart from the occasional Meals-on-Wheels volunteers.

Six million Americans 65 and older live alone in their communities, reports AARP, and are homebound because of medical conditions or lack of access to transportation. Social isolation, loneliness and ‘feeling left out’ is a public health hazard that  impacts the health and wellbeing of seniors. An AARP study found that between 25% to 29% of American adults aged 70 years and older reported being lonely and were high enough to warrant concern.

Another study conducted with Stanford University reported that socially isolated seniors over 65, without active social networks and limited family interactions, were more likely to suffer from depression and chronic illnesses leading to increased Medicare costs on hospital and skilled nursing care. 

Innovative Programs

In California, a CareMore health care plan surveyed its senior patients and 27 percent of respondents admitted to wanting more connection to and activities within their communities. So CareMore responded by launching the Togetherness Plan in its clinics with programs such as the Nifty After Fifty gym so patients could socialize and physically. They are now seeing reduced emergency room visits and lower hospital admissions.

Promoting communal activities plays a significant role in lowering certain health risks and complications. 

In Japan for example, many communities have introduced intergenerational programs to combat ​​social isolation and loneliness among older adults. Studies also show that Intergenerational interaction has multiple positive impacts for communities.  

Kawasaki City instituted a project called REPRINTS, in which senior volunteers aged 60 years and over engaged in reading picture books to school children twice a week at public elementary schools. The outcomes were positive. Children displayed better reading skills and increased respect, appreciation and comfort levels for the older generation. Parent’s reported reduced physical and psychological burdens of volunteer service for the school, leading to a relationship of trust and reliance between generations of older adults and parents. 

In such multigenerational social circles, seniors will feel a sense of belonging, of feeling needed, of feeling useful. They will still find company, hope and impetus to see bad times through. Multi-generational living offers the ultimate antidote to the sting of isolation, and stress of rejection and loneliness that often accompanies old age, especially when people fall sick or retire.

A Win-Win Situation

If urban and suburban communities think out of the box and institute multigenerational initiatives it has potential to improve the quality of life of its seniors and participating generations,  but also helps reduce overall costs for  senior care.

Recently my guardians in Atlanta or ‘stand in parents’ as I fondly call them both aged 80 and 78 respectively, had Covid. It was a tough time because their children live in other states. But I was just a phone call away. I helped pick up groceries, took them fresh home cooked meals, and collected their prescriptions. They are fortunate to have a deep network of well-wishers and family friends in Atlanta they have lovingly cultivated over the years.Their multigenerational community helps ensure their freedom to remain independent and stay rooted in their community as they live a fulfilling life at their advanced age.

Even though they are far from their own family, the community enables them to age in place in the comfort of their own home. 

Finding ways to foster intergenerational interaction within communities can be enriching to all age groups in myriad ways.  My encounter with Mavshi at a community center gave both of us the communal bond we needed to feel wanted and to belong.

And to think it all started with a teaspoon of yogurt.

This article was written 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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Prajakta Padgaonkar is a consultant, entrepreneur, and author in the senior-care sector with a strong, informed, and objective perspective on sustainable inter-generational interaction and its socioeconomic...