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Elderly Immigrants Need Special Help

  • Lonny Shavelson

The great majority of immigrants to this country are young, of working age. But in recent years more and more elderly immigrants – in their 60s and 70s and older – have been arriving, more than 100,000 a year. And for many, life here hasn't turned out the way they hoped. Fremont, California – the most ethnically diverse city in a very diverse state – is home to an especially large number of elderly immigrants. Lonny Shavelson reports on a new program designed to help them.

In a tiny walkup apartment crowded with Indian immigrants, Hardev Singh, 75, adjusts the volume of a Sikh prayer that plays over and over from a boom box. He says he moved to the U.S. to be with his daughter and her family. In Punjabi, he explains that his daughter actually invited him and petitioned for him to come over here, so they would stay together as a family.

But what Singh found here was a family under stress. His daughter and her husband worked the night shift at a medical supply factory. His adolescent grandchildren lived a lifestyle he describes, kindly, as unfamiliar. Then his son-in-law's parents also came, and there wasn't enough room in the house. Singh moved to this crowded apartment across town.

Kashmir Shahi translates Singh's comments. "He said his feelings were very hurt, but after some time you adjust with the time." Shahi, 42, is a software engineer from India's Punjab Province. He's one of 30 volunteers recently trained by the city of Fremont to work with elderly immigrants.

He says he's saddened by what happened to Singh and his family. "You know, it was really a shame for the family. They promised [their parents and grandparents] and they promised the system here that they will take care of them, and they are not doing that."

But it's not neglect, says Mary Ann Mendall, Fremont's Administrator of Aging and Family Services. It's the reality of life in the United States. Parents and grandparents who come here expecting to join an extended family like in the old country, can be bewildered by what they find. "Husband and wife are working, children are in school, the neighborhood's deserted. They're home alone."

Mendall says she doesn't know how many senior immigrants are having family difficulties, because they're embarrassed to say so. But the desperate situation of the senior immigrants became clear to her at a meeting last year.

She recalls that no one in the audience said anything at first. "And it was very quiet. And then one senior spoke up and said, 'We feel like we are parasites on our children. We depend upon them for money, for shelter, and for socialization. And we're all depressed.'" So the city of Fremont started the Community Ambassador Program for Seniors (CAPS), and held 14 focus groups in nine languages, to find out what elderly immigrants need to adjust to life here.

At a meeting at a Sikh temple, the seniors had numerous questions, including inquiries about learning to drive, survivor benefits for workers and financial aid.

The ambassadors now help elderly immigrants with housing, medical care, legal aid, family counseling and simple but crucial skills like getting around on buses. They say all of that is helping decrease the seniors' isolation and depression.

More difficult to remedy, though, is Americans' attitude toward the elderly. Marita Grudzen, with Stanford University's Geriatric Education Center, explains that in the United States the larger society does not value being old. "They go out and they're not respected or welcomed in the way they were in their country. And so it's a hundred little ways where they experience a great loss."

Before he left India, Hardev Singh was fully retired after a long military career. Now, at 75, he's preparing to leave for the job he had to take in order to get by – the overnight shift at a local gas station.

Kashmir Shahi has enrolled Singh in Medicare, put him in touch with other senior Indian immigrants, and he's working on getting him into less crowded housing. But Shahi says it is his very presence as an ambassador from Fremont that has helped Singh the most – showing that he's valued, here in the U.S. "In the real sense I think I offered him comfort, where he can enjoy his life."