ISSUES AND ASPIRATIONS: Indian seniors in the United States of America

The issues and problems faced by seniors of Indian origin in the United States have been surfacing progressively and their aspirations are dimly visible. The influx of Indian immigrants to the USA started in the late sixties and early seventies of the twentieth century. The 'early' immigrants have already entered the phase of seniors. Since late eighties family members of these 'early' immigrants have been joining them in USA. Many of these so called 'late' immigrants were parents of the early immigrants and they were already seniors on arrival. Though the number of seniors in the USA is about 170,000 out of a population of 1.7 million Indian Americans in USA, there is no data available at this time what percentage of these seniors are early and what percentage late immigrants.

Early and Late Immigrant Seniors:

Early immigrants have worked here, raised their children and grand children here, and have adapted to the US way of life. They are also entitled to all the benefits such as Social Security, Medicare. The early immigrants and their children are adequately capable of dealing with local, state and national governmental and non-governmental entities. They are equally capable of steering through the social, economic and political systems. They have developed their own social network. In short they are mainstream Indian Americans.

The late immigrants have a daunting task to adapt to the US way of life. Their support system or social network is limited, their family, and at best the Indian community. Most of them face language and/or accent problems; are unable to maneuver the transport system, receive limited or no economic and health benefits; over a period of time encounter family conflicts; and are not fully aware of programs for seniors. This group is at a loss to spend their time productively. They feel lonely as their adult children are at work and their grand children in schools and colleges. By and large they are financially dependent on their children, which makes them feel uncomfortable after a span of time.

Recognition of Issues and Problems of Indian Seniors:

The initial focus of the Indian community leaders has basically been on the social and cultural issues, irrespective of their age or sex. Concern about the youths growing in USA was recognized as an issue and dealt with. Gradually concern of issues faced by women also was identified. Women groups and youth groups as independent entities or a component of an existing entity became inevitable and for the last decade or so there are noticeable activities for women and youths. Recognition of issues and problems faced by seniors was dormant till late 90's. There was no concerted effort on the part of community to direct their attention to the unique concerns seniors, particularly the 'late' senior immigrants, have. Knowledge of these problems was confined to the seniors and their families, but did not surface as a public concern. Even today, by most accounts, if an Indian faces a problem, his or her approach is the family; it may spill over to close relatives and friends. Though there are networks - governmental and non-governmental - in USA to address such issue and problems, Indians rarely venture to take advantage of such services. There may be a scant number of cases where outside intervention has been sought.

In late 90's the seniors' problems began unfolding in public. The Welfare Reforms Act imposed severe restrictions in benefits to immigrants arriving after August 22, 1996. These restrictions affected seniors and their families adversely. Families of these seniors on whom they were financially dependent felt the economic impact of this law, and seniors also felt a loss of economic independence due to these restrictions. Hardships felt by Indian seniors and their families began unfolding in the public arena, and many communities in the United States initiated efforts to address these problems. In addition to economic factors, there were social and cultural factors for late immigrants. This encouraged communities to make the issues and problems faced by seniors public. In communities from the east to the west coast, there were vibrations among community leaders in developing loose and informal mechanisms to lessen these hardships and burdens by organizing senior citizen groups. Still there was no centralized Indian information and referral system. Traditional hesitation and ignorance among seniors and their families in seeking outside support was still a big handicap in their efforts to address important issues.

The Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA), based in Seattle, Washington, working in some 40 states and operational for about 10 years decided to expand their core base of clients to Indian Americans. The leadership at the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) seized this opportunity, when approached by NAPCA. In July 1998, at a joint meeting of Indian community leaders and NAPCA executives in New York City, there was consensus that an assessment of needs of seniors as well as information about unique problems of Indian Americans would be the first step in addressing issues and aspirations of Indian American seniors. During a conference held in September 1998 in New York, and through a follow-up survey of participants, issues and problems faced by seniors became evident. Besides the problems of loneliness, other problems which came to limelight included, but not limited to:

The conference participants suggested setting up a 'working group' to carry on the task from that point on and develop a mechanism to address seniors' issues and problems, without undermining their aspirations.