By Asha Chandra
Like so many young Indians at the time, my parents immigrated to the US in the 1960s to further their education and pursue the American dream. For the past 40+ years, they have worked and raised their family here. Now, as much as I try to deny it, they are reaching their senior years. Even though my parents have essentially “grown up” in the US, and today they are completely independent, and have created a savings net, live a very comfortable life, and in general, understand the American “systems and culture”, it will be inevitable that one day, there will be so many questions that they (and we), as adult children, will need to ask ourselves. Will they be able to live in their current homes? Will they need additional care? Will they have health insurance? For how long will they be able to continue to drive? And who can help us find out about the resources and services that exist in our local community to help make their lives comfortable as they become older? There is, also, an entirely different group of Indian immigrants for which their needs are often exaggerated due to language and cultural barriers – those that have recently immigrated in their later years to be nearer to their adult children and grandchildren. For this group, understanding the American “system” is very foreign. For many, their expectations of joining their families have been mis-matched. “Our children and grandchildren are too busy with their lives. Back home, we had so many friends and a huge social circle. Here, we feel depressed and very dependent on them.” I have heard this one too many times in the work that I do with older adults at the City of Fremont Human Services Department. Even though the adult children may try and do everything they can to make their parents lives at ease, many of these seniors feel handicapped and not in control, as they did back home. They often have to rely on their children to help them fill out social security or Medicare forms, take them to the doctor, or wait for them to come home for a social outing. And the language and cultural barriers lead to a lack of assimilation into mainstream society. This is not just a common phenomenon among Indian immigrants, but also those of other cultures, including the Asian, Hispanic, and Middle East communities. National research on the aging immigrant population in the US has validated that a lot more needs to be done to address the mental, emotional, and physical needs of this under-served group. Community Ambassador Program for Seniors In March 2005, the City of Fremont Human Services Department was fortunate to have received a two-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The City and six partner organizations, including the India Community Center, Muslim Support Network, Sikhs Engaged in Volunteer Activities, Taiwanese Senior Help Association, Centerville Presbyterian Church, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, developed a program called the Community Ambassador Program for Seniors (CAPS). CAPS has been developed to build capacity to serve seniors in their own communities, in their own language, within their own cultural norms, and will do so where seniors live, worship, socialize and learn. Given Fremont’s diversity, the Foundation is looking at the City as a role model as to how best to address the needs of immigrants at a national level. Each organization has recruited a site coordinator and 4-5 volunteers. In September, 27 volunteer ambassadors completed a 32 hour training by the City of Fremont. These ambassadors have been trained to provide information and referral services to seniors and their families on local resources, programs, and services, and may be able to answer questions related to locating transportation and housing options, assistance understanding qualifications related to benefits such as social security, Medicare, and Medi-Cal, or general questions related to healthcare and legal concerns. The three South Asian community partners, the India Community Center (ICC), Sikhs Engaged in Volunteer Activities (SEVA), and the Muslim Support Network (MSN), are working together and offer language capacity in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Konkani, and many other Indian languages. For more information, contact these Community Ambassadors: • India Community Center – Pragna Dadbhawala at 408-934-1130 ext. 263 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, • Sikhs Engaged in Volunteer Activities – Jagmeet Kaur, email@example.com • Muslim Support Network – Moina Shaiq 510-574-2082, or • Call the City of Fremont’s Senior Helpline at (510) 574-2041 for assistance. The service is free of charge, and the goal is to reach out to the community to inform them on the wealth of resources and services that exist for seniors in Fremont, Newark, and Union City. Additionally, while the ambassadors are not only serving their senior communities, they are also acting as advocates to help improve the system of care by educating the mainstream service providers to cater to specific needs that may be important within their own cultures. Also part of the grant funding, a “How To” Guide is being created by the India Community Center for new immigrant seniors. This initiative is part of the larger 5-year Robert Wood Johnson funded strategic project, Pathways to Positive Aging, a partnership of the City of Fremont Human Services Department and the Tri-City Elder Coalition, whose goal is to create a community where seniors will understand, choose and access culturally enriched, affordable services and opportunities that enhance their quality of life. Whether a new immigrant or not, it takes a village to care for a senior, and the better informed we can become, the better decisions we will be able to make. I personally am fortunate to be involved in making a difference for our community, and hope that seniors and their families will take advantage of this great program.