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Kanti Patel and Jaya Mehta celebrating Independence Day at ICC (Image provided by ICC-Milpitas)

Hey Naani-Ma, Put On Your Dancing Shoes. It’s Good For Your Brain!

In a packed hall on one Sunday evening at the India Community Center-Milpitas here in the heart of Silicon Valley, South Asian folks of all ages sit in their traditional outfits and wildly cheer the naanis and naanas on the stage as they do an energetic “Jollywood” dance number to the song, Dus Bahane.

Naani-ma Pushpanjali Gangishetti, 74, in a bright sari, matching jewelry and barefooted, shakes her hips with gusto, one arm bent seductively behind her head, the other extended in the air in front of her, a broad smile on her face. 

She clearly looked like she was enjoying the spotlight provided at the India Community Center’s (ICC) annual fund-raising gala. Ditto for at least a dozen other seniors who shared the stage with her, the men wearing fancy kurta-pyjamas, the women in sequined outfits, which anyone could see were tailored for the young at heart.

To an onlooker, it’s obvious why they call themselves the “Jollywood dancers.”

“I never thought that slipping into our dancing shoes and moving our legs would bring about such a change in us,” said 78-year-old Kanti Patel on a recent day, recalling that evening, as well as the continuing weekly dance sessions at the ICC. 

He said he and his wife, Champa, have been taking full advantage of all the cultural activities the ICC offers seniors – singing, dancing, mono acting, doing yoga, aerobics, playing bridge, or simply shooting the breeze with their peers. “What we do here are wonderful stress busters.”

Indeed, it has been long documented that physical activity, especially dancing and singing, can positively affect elderly people’s bodies and minds, leading to better cardiovascular health, fewer migraine headaches, and a sharper brain.

“Music and dance create new networks in the brain,” explained India-born neurologist Dr. Joe Verghese, lead author of a continuing study on aging at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. 

The study explored how dance and music slowed down cognitive decline in older people. It found that dancing helps prevent both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, the next most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s. 

Turns out, “all activities related to music can be beneficial to people,” noted Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP’s Senior Vice President for Policy and Brain Health, and Executive Director of the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). Engaging in music “is a powerful way to stimulate your brain.”

Lock, a panelist at the 2020 Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) Annual Scientific Meeting last November, shared those findings with 15 journalists who had won fellowships from GSA’s 2020 Journalist Network on Aging program. 

The meeting was held online because of the COVID pandemic.

She cited recent findings by the GCBH that showed that music impacts all regions of the brain and causes them to work together. It releases dopamine, an important brain chemical that influences one’s mood and feelings of reward and motivation. And the music that’s “meaningful to the individual is likely to have a greater dopamine response,” she said. 

Lock said 20 to 40 percent of dementia could be reduced or delayed through changing modifiable lifestyle factors. Music can encourage healthy behaviors that can reduce your risk of dementia. So what kind of music should seniors, who had perhaps previously largely limited themselves to bathroom singing, or not sung at all, engage in?

“It’s all about individual choices and preferences,” Lock said, noting, “Any style or type of music can be beneficial for the brain.”

According to the GCBH report, there is evidence to suggest that music that is meaningful to the individual is likely to cause the strongest brain response and dopamine release, while at the same time new music can stimulate the brain and provide a new source of pleasure.

A 90-year-old woman (whose family did not want her to be identified) stricken with dementia had started showing little interest in her surroundings and sometimes even in family members who visited her. But whenever she heard her favorite songs of yesteryears, she would quickly brighten up, said a relative.

People who use music to connect with people understand why that medium is so important for people like this woman. Linda McNair, a board-certified music therapist at a senior facility in Missouri, is quoted as saying that when people with dementia engage with music, “they don’t dwell on other anxieties.”

Of the 11 different physical activities the Einstein team studied, social dance was the only one associated with less dementia risk – possibly because it is a complex activity. It demands sustained mental effort to master new steps. 

That meant, it is not a one-and-done thing. “It has to be ongoing therapy,” Lock said.

Among the people who participated in the Einstein aging study, those who danced frequently – three or four times a week– showed 76 percent less incidence of dementia than those who danced only once a week.

Many people who dread exercising are more likely to use dancing as a way of overall physical improvement. While most exercises tend to use repetitive motions that may be found boring, dancing uses a wide variety of movements and has the additional advantage of social interaction with different people, Verghese said. As a result, it can provide greater self-confidence and self-esteem, enhance a general sense of wellbeing, and lead to more active social relationships.

Verghese, who is in his 50s, confessed he’s no fan of exercise, perhaps because of its repetitive motions.  Ballroom dancing, on the other hand, with its wide variety of movements, is something he has embraced. It has helped his overall physical wellbeing, he said. 

Music beneficial for Parkinson’s Disease

Neurologists say that music and dance can benefit the gait and balance of people with Parkinson’s disease and slow its march, possibly because they stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are reduced in people with the disease. Singing uses the same muscle groups for swallowing and breathing, functions that are impacted as the disease advances.

After being diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s a couple of years ago, a middle-aged techie in the Silicon Valley, who wished to remain anonymous, has become even more serious about learning Carnatic music, with its high-speed variations of pitch, unity of raga and tala, all of which he believes have helped slow down the advancement of the disease. 

Verghese said the social and emotional elements of dancing and music are especially beneficial for Indian American seniors, particularly those who have migrated to the United States in their later years. For many of them, cultural and language barriers, as well as lack of mobility, have limited their social interactions in their adoptive countries. 

 

Earlier Indian festival celebrations at ICC-West Valley: People from left to right - Smita Sane (Orange), Sumitra Kapoor (Blue Sari), Romila Ghai (Red and Blue), Swatantra Dhawan (Yellow)
Earlier Indian festival celebrations at ICC-West Valley: People from left to right – Smita Sane (Orange), Sumitra Kapoor (Blue Sari), Romila Ghai (Red and Blue), Swatantra Dhawan (Yellow); (Image provided by ICC)

 

That does not mean that while living in India they all had the mental stimulation older people need to keep their brains from cognitive decline, noted Sunitha Ramakrishnan, who manages the senior programs at the Mid-Peninsula chapter of the ICC. 

“There is no way older people in India could do all the activities they so freely do here” without inviting criticism from their friends and family members, said Ramakrishnan, adding, “Singing perhaps yes, but dancing no.”

Shakuntala Saini, a widow of eight years, echoed this view. “In India, if I said I’m 78, people will simply say, ‘It’s time for you to go.’ ”

The ICC has a total of 600 senior members in its four centers – located in Milpitas, Cupertino, Mid-Peninsula, and Tri-Valley. The average age of the members is 70. Some drive themselves to the centers, others get dropped off at the center by family members, and some others use county-funded car services for a nominal cost of $2 per ride. 

The COVID lockdown has not stopped them from accessing the social activities they enjoyed prior to the stay-at-home orders, noted ICC’s chief executive officer Raj Desai. As the lockdown began, ICC volunteers gave them a Zoom 101 course and they were off and running.

“In fact, there is more attendance in the classes now” than before the lockdown, noted Ramakrishnan.

On a recent day, Sunaina Jain, in her late 60s, was at a Zoom practice session with 27 other seniors at the class taught by Bollywood dance teacher Neetu Arora of the Mona Khan Dance Company.

“Come on Sunaina Aunty, arms down, hip-hip,” Arora coaxes, demonstrating what needed to be done. In Bollywood dance, she tells the students, “arm angles are really important.”

It’s Christmas Eve at the ICC and once again the stage is awash with colorful lehenga-cholis, salwar kameezes, and saris. The seniors are strutting their stuff through music and dance. 

All of them hid the little aches and pains that come with advancing years. There was Indu Chabbra, 70, a widow and legally blind, doing her thing in a lehenga-choli. 

Gangishetti, a widow of two years, is determined not to let her artificial knees keep her from having a blast. 

“They tell me that dancing has given them a sense of accomplishment and built up their confidence,” said Ishika Seth, who is a professional dancer from the Mona Khan Dance Company and has been volunteering at the ICC for the last 10 years.


Viji Sundaram wrote this article for India Currents with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations, and the Silver Century Foundation


 

South Asian Seniors Get Educated on Black Lives

Growing up as a South Asian girl, society, media and even family had always ingrained in me that light was beautiful. Days in the sun would always be followed by the dreaded moment of evaluating how much I had tanned and then a series of home remedies, skin lightening products like fair and lovely, and even milk baths. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that this experience, one shared by many South Asians, has a name: Colorism

This summer, as our country reeled from the Black Lives Matter movement, I started to think about anti-blackness or colorism in my own community. Inspired and motivated by national activists, I sought to take action in a way that felt authentic to myself. Drawing on my experiences as President of the Palo Alto Youth Council and Co-founder of a Real Talk, where I facilitate conversations between people with different political perspectives, I knew I wanted to start an intergenerational discussion about the role of the South Asian community in the Black Lives Matter movement. So, I reached out to the Bay Area Indian Community Center to take over their weekly Thursday morning virtual yoga class for seniors to lead a seminar on Black Lives Matter. 

Coming into the seminar, I worried about what the response would be to my presentation. Talking about skin color with South Asians has always seemed taboo to me. I knew that starting this conversation would be uncomfortable, especially with individuals much older than me, but also a critical step in the culture shift around beauty and race that needs to happen in our community.

I started off the seminar with a presentation on Black Lives Matter, explaining the parts of the movement, especially on social media, that many seniors lacked information on. I next moved into a lesson about the connection between the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and Indian independence movements, highlighting the influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Martin Luther King Junior. Finally, after presenting some statistics about the booming business of skin-lightening products, the dowry system, and colorism, I opened the floor up to discussion, and to say the least, I was blown away.

My initial fears of silence and anger quickly dissipated as seniors started to share their own experiences. They spoke passionately about housing discrimination they had faced in America, personal insecurities about their skin color, and the beauty standards associated with marriage. I also received pushback – some uncles and aunties highlighted my own lack of knowledge growing up in America and argued that this was just how the system worked. However, overall, the conversation ended on a hopeful note, as seniors reflected on the power of the younger generation to start shifting old beauty standards to reflect our community’s core values of good character, equality, and justice. 

As communities across the country fight for racial justice, I believe we, the South Asian community, not only have an opportunity, but rather a responsibility to look within at how we perpetuate racism. This means educating ourselves, showing up as allies to support other people of color, but also having uncomfortable, even taboo, conversations about race. My call to action for you as a reader is to start and lead these conversations with your parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. That is how we will begin to shift our culture.

Check out the Seminar below!


Divya Ganesan is a senior at Castilleja High School in Palo Alto, CA. She is passionate about connecting different cultures, ages, and political perspectives through leadership, collaboration, and technology.

Sankara Raises Over $500K

The gentleness of the Sankara family and their quiet demeanor reached out and enveloped attendees as they entered the India Community Center in Milpitas on December 8. Sankara Eye Foundation’s annual banquet was held to raise funds for surgeries and to support construction of hospitals in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.

Student volunteers guided patrons toward steaming delicious food served by Mantra. Amritsari fish and almond tikkis along with melt-in-the-mouth tandoori paneer welcomed the guests. The aroma of hot sweet chai tea flavored the air mixing with the sounds of music sung by Smriti Jayaraman. Two dancers in bright Indian attire gracefully twirled on stage to familiar Bollywood tunes.

Picture: Founder and Executive Chairman of SEF, Murali Krishnamurthy , Mr. and Mrs. Ram Reddy (President TIE SV), Mr. and Mrs Jay Vishwanathan (ED TIE SV), Dr. Ramani(Founder and Chairman Sankara India).

Sankara’s target that evening was to raise half a million dollars. Ram Reddy urged the gathering to participate in the cause that changed people’s lives for as little as $30.

Dr. R. V. Ramani, the chief guest and founder Sankara Eye Foundation-India, explained that donations in part go toward setting up hospitals and building new operation rooms within existing locations. These new facilities work to become self-sustaining units. They operate utilizing the principle of an 80-20 split, meaning that for every one operation done for a client that pays, four free operations are performed for those in need at one of the hospitals run by Sankara in India.

India has the largest population of the world’s blind with over 55 million visually impaired individuals with 8 million of them totally blind. The Sankara team reported that each location completes 50 surgeries every day.

For a $1,000 donation, the donor can get their name imprinted on a wall reserved for founders, while for a donation of just $30 a donor can fund a single surgery.

Timely retinal scans prevent blindness in children. Dr. Kaushik Murali, a pediatric ophthalmologist who works at Sankara Eye Hospital in Bangalore said, “The two large public health problems that we have looked at are diabetic retinal disease and childhood blindness, especially amblyopia, where a child does not use both eyes equally. One eye is more dominant and the brain suppresses the other eye because of which development gets impacted. We can capture an image of the retina and have a machine learning (ML) algorithm identify the areas that have been impacted and help grade it. This procedure democratizes screenings and makes it available to a  larger number of people. In theory, we can take a picture of your retina with your Android phone and with some modifications run it through an app, and that app will tell you whether you need to see a doctor.”

Any improvements in the ability to identify amblyopia in children is crucial, especially when such improvements can help to broaden access to screening procedures for the majority of children. This is because children often simply adapt to changes in vision or visual impairment. Rather than identify the presence of an issue, they will rely more on one eye, moving further away or closer to the object they are viewing. Amblyopia results in reduced visual acuity, binocularity, depth perception, and contrast sensitivity.

This not only impacts the weaker eye, which is deteriorating, but also increases the strain on the other eye which is stronger. Strain caused by amblyopia can affect the child’s energy levels, fine motor skills, ability to concentrate, and can eventually cause social problems. These problems can lead to children losing confidence, failing in school, and being mislabeled as inept or aggressive.

Sankara’s work to combat amblyopia is happening across their multiple hospitals as well as through their work at partner hospitals.

Manjula and Viggy Mokkarala, who had seen Viggy’s father perform surgeries that altered peoples’ lives, chose Sankara as their nonprofit of choice. At the Sankara Foundation gala at ICC, they gave $100,000 toward this cause.

Similarly, Ameeta and Dilmohan Chadha donated a large sum to the cause. Chadha said he felt the tenets of his religion, Sikhism, sarbad da galah (welfare of all) and Vandh Chako, (share what one has with others), taught him to share what he had. Sankara, Chadha said, is the conduit through which we can practice our religion’s teachings.

As the evening progressed, the happiness of this shared experience of making a difference in people’s lives lightened the mood. The founder and executive chairman of SEF, Murali Krishnamurthy, broke into a song, “Jot se jot jalate chalo,” light one candle with another.

Ritu Marwah is an award winning author, chef, debate coach, and mother of two boys. She lives in the bay area and  has deep experience in Silicon Valley start-ups as well as large corporations as a senior executive.

All in a Day’s Work: Subbing Senior Yoga at ICC Cupertino

When I was a young girl, I read the Reader’s Digest “All in a Day’s Work” section with interest. Contributors would submit humorous or poignant anecdotes about interactions with co-workers and customers. On labor day, I offer a similar “All in a Day’s Work” style article based on my own work experiences, whether paid or unpaid, salaried or volunteer.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to volunteer as a substitute senior yoga teacher at India Community Center in Cupertino. The site is in the heart of Silicon Valley, just a few miles from Apple. One of the yoga teachers was getting some remodeling done in her house, and Dr. Sachin Deshmukh, who runs the yoga program, asked me to be the substitute. The informal nature of the yoga teaching was evident in the rather ad-hoc manner in which I found myself in the role of a teacher, facing about 40 expectant seniors. My yoga training at Yoga Bharati had prepared me for this moment, I hoped. A lapel mike was fastened to my shirt, and just like that, we were off.

A common complaint was that I could not be heard. I tried to project my voice. The man who had affixed my lapel mike, and who was referred to as Dr. Krishna, came by again, his forehead creased with concentration as he fiddled with the sound system. I shot him a grateful look. In a room full of octogenarians and nonagenarians, my grey hair notwithstanding, I felt like a young upstart.

A Creative Commons image by Liz West

There were several levels of fitness in the room, and I tried hard to modify poses so that the wheelchair-bound could benefit from the gentle movements of yoga. I looked up videos of chair yoga on YouTube. The adage that yoga meets you at whatever level you are is relevant here. Those who were on a mat went through rounds of sun salutations with practiced ease. A lady with a large bindi on her forehead began chanting in Sanskrit: sahanau vavatu, sahanau bhunaktu, saha veeryam karvavahai, a vedic hymn that is traditionally an invocation for harmony between the teacher and the students.

The weeks flew by. As I got to know the yoga students, I learned their names and joined them for lunch. Ramesh Mathur, wearing a Gandhi cap, coordinated the program, keeping things moving smoothly. I learned that a bright-eyed lady, who always sat with her friend at lunch, was a rishtedaar, a relative. “This yoga teacher is my granddaughter’s sister-in-law,” she proclaimed proudly at the lunch table, as I smiled and nodded to my senior students. 

The center was well attended. Several seniors carpooled, their children taking turns on different days to drive a small group to the center. Friends would bring small Tupperware containers to share food with each other, eating together and mischievously spurning the communal meal that was deemed too healthy or too unhealthy or too bland.

The aging parents of tech workers in Silicon Valley proved to be a varied bunch. Many were polyglots, fluent in several of the languages that are spoken in India. Many had a deep knowledge of yogic traditions and practices. A retired University professor offered to help me with my Sanskrit pronunciation, her eyes kind. There were retired government bureaucrats and scientists, retired school teachers, poets and artists as well as housewives. Most had children and grandchildren who were fueling the tech boom in California.

There were comings and goings. During holidays, attendance went down sharply as a result of family outings with children and grandchildren. Some returned to India to tend to ancestral homes or visit family.

One of the ladies was new to the program. I told her she looked like my grandmother. She seemed to be settling in well, making new friends. She impressed me by telling me a multilingual joke, switching from Hindi to Bengali to Marwari as I clapped with delight. But one day, she was in tears. She was missing her husband, who had passed away a few weeks ago. Dr. Sachin spoke to her gently, helping her with her grief. Her new friends spoke consoling words. Everywhere, there was community and connections. I thought frequently of my own aging parents and in-laws in India, too far to benefit from these senior yoga classes.

I see now that this was a rare opportunity to observe an aspect of the immigrant experience which lies ahead. The yoga, I saw, can be particularly helpful to create community and healing around this ancient tradition, and ease the pain of being in a new land. But I also learned something about my own place in this adopted homeland and had a glimpse of my own life down the road.

The substitute stint ended quite suddenly. As I hurried into the large, somewhat musty room, an attractive lady was already issuing instructions. The home remodel had ended, and the regular yoga teacher was back.

And just like that, my gig as a senior yoga sub was over.

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. She is touched by the selflessness of volunteers. For more information about the ICC Senior program, go to http://www.indiacc.org/programs/seniors/