I see them each day with unfailing regularity. Taking a walk. Using grocery shopping as a welcome excuse to change their surroundings and move out of the confines of their homes. I have christened them my “sari aunties” and “kurta uncles,” given their sartorial predilections. Sometimes they look at me and smile, and though there is no reason to feel that way, I see a certain welcome in their eyes that’s absent in the innumerable smiles I have received till now.
As a young child there were times I would look at the adults around me and think disbelievingly: “Hmm, they say that they were once where I am now. Were they really!” Now that I am an adult, the sight of “sari aunties” makes me introspect and wonder what it will be like to be their age. I often wonder what has brought these seniors to this new land, away from India, and if their path to adaptation was as bumpy as mine or perhaps more. The opportunity arrived unexpectedly and a few generous seniors offered me an illuminating peek into their minds and shared their experiences.
“When I moved to the U.S., I felt like my end had come!” laughs Ravi Judge, 68, an interpreter. Judge lives in Pleasanton and has been in the U.S. for 20 years. A voluntary social worker in Jalandhar, she came to California to be with her children. She narrates her poignant and humorous relocation story. “There was no one to talk to. I could not go out of the home, and did not understand the work culture here. My relatives here were keeping a distance from me and that hurt me a lot, too.” Judge then secretly started working in Goodwill to save money to return to India. “I knew that if my son found out he wouldn’t let me go!” she exclaims.
What perhaps added to her sense of hopelessness was the finality of her decision to relocate: having sold their medical-equipment business in Jalandhar, there was not much to go back to. Retiring in India was evidently not an option. Missing her kids and other family, she decided to come back to California. This time she gradually pulled herself together and started looking for freelance work as a translator, her languages being Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. “I had to learn to drive. It is very important to empower oneself. Self-pity doesn’t make things easier,” Judge adds wisely.
While many seniors visit their children in the U.S. every few years, or go back and forth, quite a few of them decide to completely shift base. A sense of dependence that they might have borne on a shorter visit eventually unsettles and discourages many seniors, gradually suffocating a lifelong cultivated sense of independence.
The rates bother us a lot as we are constantly converting currencies,” says Indu Rao, while appreciating the grandeur of many of the malls in the U.S. She is here with her husband, B.R.S. Rao, a retired colonel, visiting their daughter in Milpitas. It is his first visit to the U.S., and has already given him much to chew upon. “We had our own vision of America. It is an experience to come here and see it,” remarks B.R.S. Rao. “It seems that in the day-to-day life the administration is more responsible and people in power are better educated.” On the other hand, “I find that there is a lot of stress here. I notice that people seem to be busy all day; consequently there is not much interaction with neighbors, too. Maybe it’s just as well; it takes us a while to figure out different accents!” he laughs.
The Raos acknowledge that they were eager to see their children and observe how they live and be able to understand their preferences a little better, but the physical distance separating the two countries made this trip a huge leap for them. “The long and taxing journey, and the possible pitfalls of the health care system were some worries that we had. I got medicines for almost six months because we don’t want to be a burden on the children,” Indu Rao adds.
Not becoming a burden on their children is a serious concern for a lot of seniors, leaving them emotionally unsettled. Nevertheless, stories of grace and persistence abound and one such story belongs to Arya Bhushan, 85. “One should not despair if things seem difficult initially,” he suggests. “Initially, my wife and I felt absolutely lost. Different people take a different amount of time. On an average it takes 2-3 years before people start feeling adjusted.”
Bhushan has been in the U.S. for almost 25 years and is one of the most respected and active seniors of the Indian community in the Bay area. He retired as chief commissioner of railway safety in India in 1976. After a few long visits, his wife, late Swarnalata Bhushan, and he moved to the U.S. on an immigrant visa. Later, they decided to live independently and moved to a senior housing apartment complex in Palo Alto. Their decision was prompted by a desire to give their children space, yet be close to them. “We did not want to be subordinate to the children or keep telling them what to do. Yet, the most rewarding aspect about our decision to stay here has been that we have been able to enjoy our grandchildren.”
The decision about living arrangements may be different for other seniors based on their unique sets of circumstances. Sirish Chandra, 80, immigrated to the U.S. after retiring from the Indian railways and now lives with his daughter in San Diego. “I think of this country as a place where I am well taken care of by my daughter and my doctors,” he says gratefully. Chandra’s health requires him to go for dialysis multiple times in a week. “Therefore, my lifestyle is very quiet with hardly any friends.”
“The question whether Indian parents should immigrate to America to stay with their sons and daughters remains unanswered,” surmises Pravin Sheth, an active senior immigrant himself, in his book Indians in America. “Distinctions can be observed based on the individual microculture of a family.”
Living under the same roof with their daughter or son and their family is fraught with its own set of challenges. What makes matters trickier is not just a generational difference in expectations, but a cultural gap between the parents’ Indian values and the Americanized lifestyles their children may have assimilated over time. Family dynamics and a perceived lack of respect from the spouse of their child or grandchildren can also become contentious issues.
“Sometimes simple lifestyle issues like a couple’s inability to make a freshly cooked meal each day are looked upon as a lack of respect, while it may be merely because it’s not practically feasible for the couple,” observes Mangala Kumar, senior director at India Community Center (ICC). “Just by letting go of that one expectation of being waited upon hand and foot can change things a lot.”
Many seniors resent being perceived as handy help for housekeeping or babysitting and feel that their drab days in their children’s adopted land pale in comparison to their once active life in India. The absence of a social network of peers, financial dependence, and challenges like navigating new and seemingly complex essential lifestyle elements, like language, transport, and the health care system, add to the seniors’ sense of loss and heighten their frustration.
“Immigration changes the immediate environment of seniors and they become dependent on their children financially and also for socialization,” notes Kumar. “They equate their lack of mobility with lack of freedom and feel cooped up and lost, not knowing any peers of their own. On an average women have it a little harder because of the fact that ladies in that generation are not particularly fluent in English.”
Sometimes, simple issues get exacerbated due to lack of communication. “Besides feeling lonely, their depression makes them less open to sharing their feelings. Sometimes they don’t tell their children freely what they want,” explains Kumar. “Always converting dollars to rupees, even simple things like a haircut are hard to come by.”
Knowledge of how the systems operate in their adopted land clearly goes a long way in expediting the process of adaptation. Bhushan talks passionately about his zealousness in figuring out the public transport systems in the Bay area, the time-consuming nature of connections notwithstanding. With his advancing age, he now uses the Outreach Paratransit Services that provides door-to-door transportation in taxies or vans. “Hum log baekar hain baebas nahin hai (we may not be employed, but we are not helpless)” he adds jovially. “Be independent, let go of your attachments. One does not have to be in control all the time. Accept this and guide your children as the need be,” he advises.
The initial, painful years of alienation can be curtailed by accessing resources like the ICC, which has centers in Milpitas and Santa Clara. ICC charges a nominal membership for seniors and plays host to at least 30 seniors each day. It offers seminars and workshops (art and craft, creative writing classes), wellness programs (yoga, dietary information), social activities (celebrating festivals, besides field trips, community lunches, and games), and support and referral services like legal and medical clinics.
“It’s very gratifying to see people in their 60s learn new things at ICC,” notes Gopi Godhwani, Chair (Seniors) at ICC. “The fact that ICC is a community center for all age groups contributes to a sense of family. It is important that seniors be aware of their rights, e.g. seniors who are citizens be aware of their social security benefits.” ICC also runs a bus service in conjunction with the City of Milpitas and Godhwani hopes to get the City of Fremont to agree to a similar arrangement as a lot of seniors reside in Fremont.
But it takes a while to figure out that support systems exist, and many seniors like the Raos spend time cooking, reading, Web-browsing, or walking. “I think it is a little harder for the senior men when they are visiting from India,” says B.R.S. Rao. Old favorite, reading newspapers, remains on top of his list of activities, while television is way down as he has not developed an affinity with any program. “While visiting here, men find a huge vacuum in their lives all of a sudden. The ladies on the other hand get busy with cooking and other activities of the home. For me, I find the computer a big companion.” His wife, meanwhile, continues her Art of Living follow-up classes in Milpitas. “If parents want to live here, their life depends on their children’s understanding their requirements so that they don’t feel completely cut out,” he adds.
Building on and sharing skills learnt in India is another route by which many seniors find their own niche in the U.S. Notable mathematician Calyampudi R. Rao, senior immigrant and former president of the Indian Statistical Institute, who was named as one of the recipients of the National Medal of Science by President Bush in 2002, is a shining example. Rao is now emeritus holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Pennyslyania State University. The late Swarnalata Bhushan, recipient of the 2001 Toni Sykes Memorial award, used her artistic skills as a vehicle to integrate with society. “People valued my wife a lot and she volunteered and taught at a lot of different places.” Bhushan shares proudly.
A few seniors who immigrated here in their late 40s and 50s have had the time to let their psyche accept the changes gradually. Many, foreseeing the vacuum in their later years, soon get involved with various causes in the community.
“It’s very easy to get bored. Getting involved changes that,” posits 75-year-old writer Kanu Shah, who has written two plays that have been staged at ICC. Driven by ambition for a better life and a desire to be with other relatives and his only son, all of whom are in the U.S., Shah moved to the U.S. in his early 50s. His play Jayen to Jayen Kahan (Where should we go?) deals with the difficulties encountered by a couple that sells its property in India and immigrates to the U.S. “In the play, the couple finds themselves sitting on the fence, unsure of where to go,” narrates Shah.
“I wrote these two plays to drive home the point to seniors that if you have roti kapada aur makaan (food, shelter, and clothing) in India, please do not immigrate, and if you do, try to adjust to the lifestyle in the U.S. Also, try to live as independently as you can and try not to interfere with your children’s lifestyle. Take initiative, learn to drive and operate the computer. It opens up a whole new world.”
Judge echoes similar sentiments, concentrating the juice of her experiences. “What holds us back is fear. I realized soon enough that brooding about a lost lifestyle doesn’t help in any way. It’s important to stand up for yourself.” Judge helped found an organization Sanjeevani, a support group for women, which still runs in Punjab and she continues to be active in the community through associations like the Sikh temple and often mobilizes drives for collecting clothes and other useful materials to be sent to India. “If I see any seniors brooding, I want to tell them: ‘Get up, go out of the house, do something productive. Talk to people. Enjoy small things like ice cream. Try your hand at new things! Always remember that people respect you for who you are.’”