My father-in-law, Dr. Venugopal Menon, immigrated to the U.S in the late 60’s. A renowned allergist, he retired a few years ago as the President of his clinic in Houston, Texas and recently wrote and published a memoir. At 78, he continues to travel the world and serve on various boards. Immigrants like Dr. Menon, his wife, Sreedevi Menon are among the first generation of Indians to age in America. Successful and assimilated, they have no plans to go back to the home country. Yet, they worry about growing older in this one. Unfortunately for them, there are hardly any non-profits that can provide the kind of aging services that they would prefer. They would rather be around people who speak their language, who like the same iconic dishes like dhokla or sambhar-saadam or mishti-doi. But as it stands, that might prove difficult. Unlike the Jewish, Chinese and Korean communities, Indians have not yet invested in elder services that can provide the comfort of familiar culture to the growing numbers of South Asian seniors in America.
The undeniable and alarming reality, according to experts, is that South Asians are singularly unprepared to deal with the growing numbers of their elderly in the United States.
In my reporting for a cover story published in India Abroad’s magazine last week, and re-published in The Huffington Post, I discovered that other than India Home Inc., there are very few fully-staffed nonprofits in the North-East that provide culturally sensitive services for South Asian elders or have trained staff that speak at least one South Asian language. This, in spite of the fact that the numbers of Indian elders are growing fast.
For instance, in New York City, Indians are the second largest immigrant groups and between 2000 and 2010, the population of older immigrants from India, grew by 135 percent. With significant numbers only allowed to immigrate in the 1960’s, they are also among the newest of immigrant groups. According to the Pew Research Group, around 87 percent of Indian-American adults in 2010 were foreign-born, the highest percentage among the six largest Asian-American groups. However, even with such large numbers present, there are few programs available to South Asian elders in the U.S., organized around the philosophy that understands that as South Asians age, they long for the familiar comforts of home.
And even when nonprofits do invest in offering culturally sensitive services for aging South Asians, they struggle to secure funding. In spite of being one of the richest ethnic groups in the United States, with average median incomes much higher than the American median income, the reality is that Indian-Americans donate to few charitable causes here in the US. Instead, they direct their giving toward religious activities and institutions or to charities doing work in India.
So why don’t South Asians just settle for mainstream senior centers? I found that some of the biggest hurdles that keep South Asian elders from accessing services at mainstream centers have to do with food. Many South Asians have restrictions on the kind of food they can eat. Some Hindus are vegetarian, while Muslims have religious injunctions against eating food that is not halal. Then there’s the language access issue – 62% of older Indian immigrants and 71% of older Pakistanis in New York City have Limited English Proficiency (LEP) – which means they reported to census takers that that they speak English “less than very well” or not at all. Rather than struggle with English at mainstream centers, many South Asian seniors would rather stay home.
The problems are complicated, and so far seem intractable. However, perhaps it is time we start thinking seriously about finding solutions.
Dr. Rashmi Gupta, an Assistant Professor of Social Work at San Francisco State University, was one of the experts I interviewed. She was unequivocal in her warning: “South Asians are proud of all that they have achieved in this country,” she said. But now, she said, “The younger generation needs to think about ‘what’s going to happen to my parents?’ ”
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