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Taking seniors to a higher plane

May 15, 2010 03:02 IST
India Home, now in its third year, stands out from many facilities for seniors from India in the New York tri-state area. First, it offers easy access to activity sites thanks to a minibus donated by the Leena Doshi family. Second, it aims to have its own living facility for seniors and help those with dementia. Apart from yoga and meditation classes, birthday events, outdoor trips, it is also empowering seniors, teaching them English, and through organizations like the South Asian Council for Social Services, it also gets seniors to know their legal rights and various resources New York city offers them.

The organization owes its existence to three daughters who also are doctors, and the plight of their parents. "Towards the end of his life, my father Vangapandu Lakshmi Naidu, a Sanskrit scholar, suffered from vascular dementia," said Dr Vasundhara Kalasapudi, a geriatric psychiatrist and president, India Home.

Two weeks ago, Kalasapudi received an award for community service from SACSS during the latter's 10th anniversary celebrations in New York. She dedicated the award to many volunteers at the organization, her friends and donors, and of course, her father. "His cognitive abilities gradually deteriorated," she said. "It was painful for to see my father, a lover of books, unable to recognize words and letters. In many instances, he forgot who he was, his family, and other aspects of his life that he loved so much. This was only worsened by the lack of mental stimulation in my village in Andhra Pradesh. There was no community center or congregational area for people of his generation to meet."

She thought of bringing him to America but she found that there was no facility that would suit someone from Indian background. She quit her job and thought of moving back to India with her scientist husband, even though their daughter had started medical school and their son was in college. Her sister and brother-in-law offered to look after the father. But Kalasapudi returned home twice or thrice a year to spend time with her father.

"My friend Dr Kiran Dave, on the other hand, brought her mother to live with her in America," Kalasapudi continued. "Her mother was a remarkable woman. She received a master of science in zoology in India in the 1930s.  She then became a professor. She developed Alzheimer's disease a few years ago. Though she had interactions with other senior members of the Indian community here, it was not on a regular basis. There were no challenges readily available for her to make her mental powers stronger. A once brilliant professor became a small senile lady."

Kalasapudi's close friend Dr Amit Sood brought his father-in-law, affected by Parkinson's disease, to America.
Sood's wife Dipika, a physician, is also a close friend of Kalasapudi. "He (the father-in-law) knew exactly what was happening to him," Kalasapudi reminisced. "As a well known anesthesiologist in Hyderabad, Dr Nagarajan was familiar with the disease and the symptoms. We cannot expect the regular senior homes to be sensitive to Indian customs. This dilemma left Dr Sood and his wife in complete charge of Dr Nagarajan. If there was a facility where he could spend some time with others of his age, his condition would not have deteriorated rapidly."

She and her friends realized that if Indian senior citizens had a place of their own where they could not only reminisce about their Indian roots but also forge new friendships and receive active counseling, they would be less miserable. "In fact, anyone who attends our events feels very positive and empowered," Kalasapudi said. 'We are no prisoners in our homes, watching TV all the day, and longing to meet our friends face-to-face,' is a common affirmation you hear from many seniors.

Janak Datt, 69, told NPR that many Indian seniors are not encouraged to be independent, or speak up at home. 'Because that will spoil their relations,' she said. 'A daughter will understand. But with a daughter-in-law, a word taken from the mouth once, you cannot take it back.'

Some seniors are actively thinking of moving to an assisted living facility with fellow Indians thanks to the counseling they get at India Home. While it may take the organization a few years to have its own center, and then a residential facility, it has established partnerships with mainstream senior citizen centers.

Some of these organizations could not understand why the organization wanted its own catering. 'We offer vegetarian food at our center,' one of the managers told Kalasapudi. 'But you offer mostly boiled vegetables,' she responded. 'They need spicy food.'

Before she could think of starting India Home, she needed to make sure that the organization could get a bus for the seniors. "Otherwise, they had to depend on their children or family friends to drive them to the center," she said. Once the Doshi family made the commitment, the ball started rolling.

"We just cannot forget the help we received from community leaders and my own family," she says. "My daughter Bharathi, who has worked with Dr Doshi, arranged a meeting with her. My husband Srinivasa Rao suggested I look to temples to host our meetings and activities. And that is how the Nori family came to help us by letting us hold events at the Sai Mandir they had started." There were many others who volunteered their time and gave loans and donations to the $100,000 seed money for the project.

"We had no idea how a nonprofit organization works," Kalasapudi says. "Without the encouragement and blessings of so many people in our community, we would not have taken off and expand."
Arthur J Pais in New York