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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Narika, Fremont
Aging in America: South Asian Seniors Seek Help
“Neglect and financial abuse of elderly parents happen much more frequently than you might expect in South Asian communities,” says Jaya Nelliot, Director of Outreach for Ashiyanaa, an organization in DC that provides support and services to South Asian seniors in distress.
“The elderly are vulnerable inside as well as outside the home,” says Nelliot. “Recently we dealt with a case where we had to locate someone’s father who was living independently. The son contacted us when he couldn’t locate his father, and we eventually found that the father had been practically ‘kidnapped’ by a young man who had befriended him at a temple. The young man was using his credit card and money and had managed to cut him off from all his social contacts.”
Ashiyanaa for seniors
There are two categories of South Asian seniors in the U.S. – the first wave of immigrants who have lived in the US for 30 to 40 years, paid their dues, raised children, and become grandparents. The second are those who’ve immigrated at a later stage in life, to be with their children.
Ashiyanaa helps with a variety of issues which range from the bureaucratic like dealing with immigration papers or understanding the resources available for South Asian seniors in the county, to assisting with basic needs because they have been abandoned by their families, says Nelliot.
Heartbreaking and unimaginable as it may seem, abandonment and physical abuse of the elderly are on the rise in the South Asian population in the U.S.
Seniors under stress
In an interview on Radio Zindagi, Shailaja Dixit, the director of Narika, reported a definite upward trend in the number of seniors seeking help. Narika, a Bay Area organization, provides support for domestic violence survivors. Most times, said Dixit, adult children bring parents to the U.S. and pressure them into housework or childcare duties. Senior parents may feel too inhibited to speak up even if they feel isolated, burdened by the pressure of household work, and if their health is neglected.
It’s hard to know the extent of the problem without statistics, but Dixit reports Narika receives calls from an increasing number of South Asian seniors who are suffering while at home with their children.
‘Sorry doc. We can’t do curry for your father’
Mainstream community services are not sensitive to the cultural nuances of South Asian multigenerational households, where elderly parents, despite facing abuse, are often most concerned with saving face.
Denser hubs of Asian immigrants, like those in New Jersey and New York, have places like India Home, established in New York in 2008 by Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, a geriatric psychiatrist. When Dr. Kalasapudi’s brilliant, elderly father began suffering from dementia, she tried local senior daycare centers to tend to her father while she worked.
However, none of the centers could offer culturally congruent care. They could not serve the food he was used, to or provide a community of South Asian peers he could feel comfortable with.
Kalasapudi remembers one director saying to her, “Sorry doc we can’t curry for your father.”
Feeling at home in India Home
Kalasapudi grew determined to create a place to fill this gaping need. She began with informal conversations at temples and community gatherings to determine the problems and potential solutions.
She pounded the pavement, distributing flyers and gathering resources until the first culturally targeted center for South Asian seniors, India Home, opened in Queens, NY, in 2008.
There is resistance among South Asians to accepting the reality of aging and the need for services outside the home, remarks Dr. Kalasapudi. “It was hard to get South Asian donors for India Home and the perception that the need isn’t crucial hasn’t changed.”
Model minority & cultural blinkers
Dr. Rashmi Gupta, an assistant professor of Social Work at San Francisco State University, told the Huffington Post that cultural blinkers prevent the South Asian psyche from accepting any other status than a ‘model minority.’ They won’t acknowledge homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, or abandoned parents among their model minority population.
She added, “the fact that their elders need more than to be clothed and fed is a realization which has been slow in coming to their well-heeled sons and daughters. There needs to be a big change in the perceptions and beliefs about how to age, within the community itself says.”
Returning to your roots
The seniors who frequent India Home have lived in the U.S. for over three decades and now are retired. Their sons and daughters have married outside the culture, and they proudly display pictures of their mixed-race grandchildren.
However, in their old age, these seniors long to return to their roots. Meera Nair, communications director for India Home, writes that there is no dearth of senior centers in New York. But they lack staff who speak at least one South Asian language, and they don’t serve the South Asian food that Indian immigrant seniors are used to. So attendance drops off when South Asian seniors don’t feel comfortable with these centers.
A watchdog group raises red flags
A Chicago-based watchdog group called South Asians Aging in America Policy and Research Institute (SAAPRI) studies South Asian welfare issues. They warn of the urgency of developing services for a rapidly growing population of South Asian seniors.
At a 2019 community meeting, SAAPRI identified several gaps in services for South Asian seniors. Language and cultural barriers make it challenging for South Asians to access local community services for the elderly. Seniors are likely to be discriminated against when trying to access services because of their limited English proficiency.
Another obstacle to healthy aging is the ‘geriatric mindset’ of many elderly south Asians. They allow themselves to ‘feel’ old and become less independent, relying heavily on their children to make personal decisions. The big gap in services for the aging South Asian population is a warning of an imminent crisis for the community, warns Dr. Gupta.
Pop-up grassroots band-aids
“We have several pop-up grassroots efforts to help the older South Asian population. However, compared to other immigrant communities, South Asians don’t have an organized network of elder care services that are sensitive to cultural nuances and dietary needs. We are the newest immigrant population in America, and others like the Korean, Chinese, and Jewish communities, are far ahead of us, here. This leaves our seniors enormously vulnerable to isolation and depression,” Dr. Gupta adds.
For now, organizations like Apna Sapna merely plug that gap.
Payal Sawhney of Apna Sapna feels strongly that the mental health of future South Asian communities depends on their oldest citizens remaining happy and healthy. “Depression and unhappiness in the family affect everyone and cost the healthcare system millions of dollars. A community space fix to mental health and wellbeing is the best investment a state government can make.”
Program director at Apna Sapna Geeta Mehan adds, “The fact that our seniors can age with dignity in their twilight years is something our children will observe and, hopefully, carry forward. Finally, we have a chance to give back to those who blazed the trail before us.”
Read Part 1 of the Aging in America Series- Apna Sapna: Desi Seniors Dream of Aging with Dignity