“Let me tell you my story,” begins Bhailal Patel, a senior living in Chicago. “I am under house arrest.”
But he does not seem upset; rather he is jesting about how his adult son and daughter walked into his home a few weeks ago, and took away his car keys so that he would not venture out during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the only way they could ensure his safety because Bhailalji, as everyone calls him, would go off to office for a few hours daily. And that won’t do any more. He had already been in quarantine for six weeks when he was interviewed for this report.
Underneath that good humored exterior however, the family is worried about his sister-in-law who remains hospitalized, stricken with the coronavirus.
(In the interest of full disclosure, Bhailal Patel is executive vice president in charge of the Chicago office of Parikh Worldwide Media, the parent company of News India Times and Desi Talk).
Now, under a strict regimen laid down by his son, also because Patel, 78, has heart disease and diabetes, the family eats, prays and exercises together.
“One day is yoga, another day is weights, and so on and so forth,” Bhailalji says. He has added a few more deities to his morning prayer, and started a satsang on Zoom every Thursday since he became housebound.
Bakuben Trivedi, 78, who lives in Queens, says the “biggest problems” for elderly Indian-Americans are getting vegetarian food, fresh vegetables, the fact that not every senior has Medicare and Medicaid, higher prices for basic goods although government support payments are not raised higher to meet that.
Add to that, the high level of dependency because one may not know how to drive, or afford taxis.
“So they are facing financial difficulties as well as physical and mental problems,” says Trivedi whose frequent visits to the nearby Hindu temple have come to a complete halt, as has the social life accompanying that.
“In normal times, they (elderly) used to go to the bank, the temple, shops etc. Most of us used to get up in the morning, do the prayers, put something to cook in the pressure cooker, and then leave the house.” says Bakuben who lives alone and is an active 78, biding time to resume her busy schedule. Meanwhile, local temples are keeping track of devotees, especially seniors, finding out how they are so that they don’t feel lonely, she says.
“You can go crazy watching TV,” she says, especially with all the COVID news that includes how many died and how many are infected. “For me, I wake up taking God’s name, make tea, have some breakfast, and then cook some lunch, clean the house. Other than putting the garbage out, I do not step out. I read religious texts, do aarti in the morning and evening.” She does engage with a seniors phone group of where they listen to music, discuss issues etc. “Our custom anyway is to pray at home. So every day we pray for the wellness of everyone and to do the right things.”
It took years for elderly Indian-Americans to build an infrastructure in America that would attend to their needs – from establishing their own organizations which can now benefit from government programs, to encouraging the building of culturally specific retirement communities, and for home care companies to start targeting this group. People like Bhailal Patel and Bakuben Trivedi, have been a part of the organizing efforts as have hundreds of seniors around the country.
Almost every major city in the country, now has multiple seniors organizations for Indian and South Asians.
That massive effort is paying dividends in several ways during the COVID-19 pandemic which requires self-isolation for weeks and weeks. News India Times spoke to numerous seniors and leaders of organizations and those living in retirement communities, about the radical changes that have beset them with COVID-19.
According to a rough estimate by Rajeshwar Prasad, founder of the National Indo-American Association for Senior Citizens (NIAASC), 12 percent of people of Indian origin living in America are seniors. If this community numbers around 3 million, it puts the figure for seniors at around 360,000, he notes.
Over the years, seniors organizations have sprung up in every city; home care companies have been established to meet culturally specific needs of the ethnic groups from South Asia, and residential communities ensuring an ‘Indian’ way of life with all the comforts of the West, have begun to grow.
India Home, a non-profit organization set up in 2007, dedicated to addressing the needs of Indian and South Asian origin seniors, has several centers in New York, and is led by Executive Director Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi.
In Chicagoland, Kulsoom Fatima Khan, public relations coordinator for Sahara Home Care, tells News India Times SHC caters mostly to South Asian seniors since 2010 because there were no culturally appropriate services available for this community.
Zubeda Patel, one of SHC’s clients, who at this time of COVID-19, is housebound and a client of Sahara Home Care, says, “I spend my time at home reading books, the Quran, saying my namaz,” especially now that it is Ramadan. She uses WhatsApp to talk to relatives.
The India Community Center which operates in California for the last 16 years in two major locations, Milpitas and Cupertino, with satellite offices at other locations, has a massive program for seniors. The programs continue online and have even expanded, Raj Desai, executive director of ICC, told News India Times.
Since the quarantine began, India Home started a home-delivery meal service from March 23, “through which thousands of meals are being served to the safety of seniors’ homes,” it says on its website. It is also checking on its members on a regular basis, providing case management over the phone, and continuously expanding its online class offerings (yoga, meditation, creative aging) which are being accessed globally, not just locally any more.
The NIAASC’s Prasad, who was also elected president of Shantiniketan, a cluster of retirement homes in Tavares, Central Florida, says life there has undergone a major change with the self-isolation and social distancing protocols.
“All the residents can no longer meet for meals in the Clubhouse,” he said, and even though the daily “Happy Hour” is cancelled, people come outside and sit 6 feet apart to at least be out and see their friends.
He has had to take unpopular steps, denying entry to relatives of one of the residents in the complex; sending out emails warning those seen playing cards in the Clubhouse. His own children in Virginia and Colorado changed their minds about visiting him as they would have been stuck at Shantiniketan.
Shikha Bhatnagar, executive director of the South Asian Network based in Artesia, California, tells News India Times, her organization moved quickly to deliver an emergency response for its members, especially seniors, as soon as the shelter-in-place protocol came into force.
South Asian Network serves Los Angeles and Orange Counties, helping some 1,200 people. The organization has been calling each one of them to remind them SAN is there to help, including those seniors who may be undocumented.
“What we are hearing is that folks are feeling very isolated and asking when they can come over to our center,” Bhatnagar says. “We are advising them that we can still help them get the usual benefits. A lot of our members are very worried about rent payments.”
Anu Natarajan, the former Deputy Mayor of Fremont, California, says she has not heard of Indian-origin seniors facing any serious problems in her area. Many organizations, mainstream and Indian-American, are there to help them, delivering groceries and cooked meals.
In Houston, Texas, the Indian Senior Citizens Association, established as far back as 1985, by just 20-30 members, now has a membership of around 1,100. Ramesh Modi, former president and now Trustee, tells News India Times, “The situation right now is very tough.”
“Seniors here are not into it yet and need help. They are not as computer literate,” Modi says. He fondly remembers the picnics and other events ISCA used to host and organize, including cruises. Now with savi300,000, ISCA hopes to buy its own property, of course after COVID-19. He contends seniors in the Greater Houston area do not have financial issues as many have lived and worked long enough in the United States to receive their benefits.
Similarly, members of the United Senior Pariwar in Greater Chicago, Illinois, appear to have less financial problems because of social security and other government support, says Ramesh Chokshi, president of USP. But the organization mourning the recent loss of its vice president to COVID-19, Chitu Patel. Another member, Kamu Patel, has been hospitalized with the infection for more than 10 days. He hears she is getting better.
Meanwhile, through video calling and WhatsApp, the members continue to talk and meet each other, and discuss health issues also, like what to eat and do. “Drinking hot water, gargling twice a day, no junk food, no pizzas, no burgers, sandwiches. Just Indian foods, stressing vegetables and fruits,” Chokshi says.
Raj Desai of the India Community Center in California, transitioned fast to online services for seniors. The ICC has about 1,000 seniors it helps with a variety of activities. “I was most worried about our seniors when all this virus news started coming out.”
Ninety percent of the seniors that ICC serves came from India when they were already elders, he says. “They had other underlying conditions like blood pressure and diabetes,” he noted.
The ICC Zoom calls for seniors stretch from 9 am to 1 pm daily and include yoga, karaoke, discussion forums, and the popular “chobara” where each person gets 2 minutes to speak about anything.
“It’s amazing. These are seniors who had never used Zoom, but after just a couple of sessions, they’ve learnt everything,” Desai says.
One of the biggest advantages of Zoom meetings, Desai said, is that even those who were shy to join before, including those who may be disabled, have come into the fold because the apps used give them some anonymity.
“We as an organization are learning how to use such technology to make seniors more comfortable,” Desai said.
Forty staff, all of them now furloughed, continue to work with ICC, and they help with everything including getting prescriptions for those seniors stuck here on a visit with no family physician and medications finishing.
Sixteen volunteers at ICC deliver meals, cooked to strict specifications laid down by the Santa Clara Health Department – healthy, low calorie, low fat, no dessert, meal, cooked at the specified temperature, packed within an hour, and delivered within the hour.
“We are the only organization delivering vegetarian food to the door,” Desai says proudly. And its free, and seniors can order more than one meal!
“We were supported all these 16 years by the community. Now we are going to help them get through this,” Desai said.