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Immigrant Caregiver Assists Armenian Elderly in New York


Different cultures have different ways of dealing with their elderly. In the United States, old age homes and assisted living facilities are often thought to be the answer - even by ethnic groups that traditionally prefer to take care of their old people at home. In this edition of New American Voices you'll meet Jenny Akopyan who helps run an old age home for Armenian immigrants in New York City.

Jenny Akopyan, a trim, energetic woman with large dark eyes - is the Assistant Director of the Armenian Old Age Home in Flushing, an ethnically diverse section of New York City. Just down the block is a turreted gray stone Hindu temple… across the street from that, a large Chinese supermarket. The home itself is a three-storey brick building surrounded by well-tended greenery. At present it houses 45 residents, mostly women but some men as well, aged 67 to 101. The average age is 89, Jenny Akopyan says. She is proud of the care the residents receive.

"People who live here, we provide them with meals, with personal care services - which means we help them with showers, we clean their rooms, we do their laundry, we arrange the doctors' appointments for them," Mrs Akopyan explains. "If they get sick we take care of them here or send them to a hospital to get professionals to take care of them."

In addition to caring for their physical needs, the staff members here also try to make the residents' lives as pleasant as possible. "We provide them with activities, too, here," says Jenny Akopyan. "They love the Armenian coffee hour. You should see them coming downstairs three times a week for that little cup of Armenian coffee. It's very strong coffee, I personally quit drinking that coffee, because it's like a health hazard. You should see those ladies, they ask for the second, third cup of coffee, and they're okay with that. And they socialize during that hour. They listen to music, we have birthday parties, we have happy hours every Thursday, when they gather in our solarium and they listen to Armenian music, or they sing along, they recite poems, those that remember some. And of course they play bingo, and cards…"

Mrs. Akopyan says the home dates back to the 1940s. "A group of ladies, volunteers, noticed that there were some Armenian elderly people sitting in front of the church, having nobody to take care of them. They took pity on these people and took those people to live with them. And then, you know, time goes by, and they see that there are more and more of such people, because they were the Genocide survivors," she points out. "Many of them didn't have any immediate family. They just came here to the United States to save themselves, and they got older and in need of help. So that's how our home started."

Jenny Akopyan started working in the Armenian Old Age Home in 1996. She had come to the United States from her native Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, with her husband and two young children four years earlier. "I was unprepared, completely," she recalls. "I mean I never ever in my life thought that I would end up at the other end of the world, in a foreign country, and living my life the way I live now. But we had help. The International Rescue Committee sponsored our arrival in the United States. Though they loaned us money, at the first opportunity we returned that money. They helped us to settle in a new place, they sent my husband to language school."

Mrs. Akopyan, who had been a teacher in Baku, says she taught herself English little by little by helping her children with their schoolwork. To help support the family, she worked at a variety of odd jobs. Eventually she took some evening English as a Second Language courses at a local college which offered special programs for new Americans. Within a semester, she says, she was also taking courses in computers, office management and business management. "Though I had my Master's [degree] in Education from back in the Soviet Union, I realized that with my level of English there is no way for me that I can go to teaching," she said. "I didn't want to go in front of a classroom with mistakes in language. So I thought, how can I apply my skills that I had, my background, plus my new knowledge? So that's how I ended up here in the Armenian Home."

Dealing with elderly Armenians all day long, Jenny Akopyan says, is almost like being back home. "You live like in a little Armenian village," she says. "People here, with their needs, with their differences, and you deal with these people. You try to make their life here as comfortable as it could be. And make them happy."

On the other hand, she says, she is very much plugged into the life of her new country. "First of all, I help our residents connect with the outside world," she says. "Whenever we need help, social services, medical help, I make calls, I deal with different agencies, different businesses, I do the ordering, so I'm all over America. I'm talking to employment agencies, I do the human resources here, too, computers - so I know the American world. I live in America. That's my country now."

The transition to life in America was much harder for her husband, Mrs. Akopyan says. Although he was an experienced engineer, he basically had to start from scratch, and tried many jobs before finally going to work - in a non-engineering capacity - for the New York City Department of Health. Her children, though, are thoroughly American, she says. Her son is in college, her daughter has begun a promising career as a computer analyst.

The road for new immigrants in America can be rocky, Jenny Akopyan says from experience, but it can lead to a satisfying life. She offers some words of advice. "Embrace your new life, don't be afraid of new things, try new things," she urges. "And of course, number one, try to learn the language and the culture of the country that you're coming to, so that it will be easier for you to stand strong on your feet."

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