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Elderly immigrants deal with isolation

A growing population of foreign-born seniors often struggle with loss of community and traditions in America.

January 27, 2008|Vanessa Bauza | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Swadesh Jain used to travel New Delhi's streets perched on the back of a rickshaw, visiting relatives, perusing shops and taking in the latest Bollywood movies. When her only son and his family moved to Naperville, Jain came too, trading her balmy homeland for the snowy suburbs and a life where everyone's schedule is jampacked -- except hers.

Jain's son, Himanshu, a technology consultant, shuttles to San Francisco for work several days a week. Her daughter-in-law, Payal, juggles a job and her two kids' after-school dance, swim and math lessons.

Jain, 75, spends much of her time home alone, watching half a dozen Indian soap operas on satellite television.

"When the TV is on I feel like someone is talking," Jain said in Hindi, through Himanshu. "It is difficult to pass the time sitting all alone, doing nothing."

At a time when more immigrants are living in the United States, the elderly are increasingly on the move, following their adult children to America and what can be a bewildering new world.

In fiscal year 2006, more than 65,000 immigrants 65 and older became legal permanent U.S. residents, up 31% from the previous year, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics.

Although small in number, the elderly make up a growing proportion of the total population of legal permanent residents, from 1.3% in 1956 to 5.1% in 2006. That is nearly twice as large a proportion as in Great Britain, Canada or Australia, whose immigration policies favor job skills and education over family ties, said Jeanne Batalova, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

"In the U.S. there is a greater emphasis on family reunification," Batalova said. "Older immigrants account for a larger share of new immigrants compared to countries that place more emphasis on employment-based immigration. There is definitely an upward trend."

Still, elderly immigrants are often invisible here. As they move from their own households to their children's care, they lose their authority and independence. Learning English is a struggle, and without an income or retirement benefits, they often depend on relatives to pay for medical care and basic necessities.

Isolation is intensified in rootless suburbs that are nearly impossible to navigate without a car or driver's license. And America's fast-paced youth culture can leave little time for the reverence afforded the elderly in their home countries.

"These are kind of displaced old people," said Celia Berdes, assistant professor at Northwestern University's Buehler Center on Aging, Health & Society. "They have lived their whole lives to be honored elders in their home cultures and then suddenly, for the sake of keeping their families unified, they have been transferred into a culture that does not honor elders.

"They have the practical logistics of starting to live life as Americans and then they have this more existential problem, which is that their role has been removed," Berdes said.

Swadesh Jain is grateful for the opportunities her grandchildren have here, but laments they have not carried on rituals such as bowing down to touch the feet of elders, as she used to do.

A practitioner of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, she prays at a modest altar with miniature statues of gods tucked into a kitchen cabinet, while her 8-year-old granddaughter believes Santa Claus delivered the presents she found under the family's Christmas tree.

Jain spends three days a week at the Xilin Asian Community Center's senior program, in a Naperville strip mall. The center offers calligraphy lessons, a visiting chiropractor and lunches served in rooms named after the Chinese zodiac animals. Mahjongg tiles rattle across tables.

Most of Jain's companions are Chinese and the language barrier makes conversation difficult. Still, Jain joins in the morning tai chi exercises and has taught some seniors to play her favorite game, gin rummy.

More than 8,000 immigrant seniors in the Chicago area participate in adult day programs or receive home care services, said Beth O'Grady, executive director of the Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly, which represents 50 community organizations covering more than 30 ethnic groups. Her coalition is encouraging immigrants to learn about legal tools such as living wills, where they can leave instructions about hospital treatment or a wish to die naturally.

"In some other cultures the old person doesn't ever get to make these decisions," O'Grady said. "The very idea of planning for a time when you are incapacitated may seem like bad luck."

O'Grady's coalition also helps agencies serving ethnic communities identify depression, which affects 25% to 40% of elderly immigrants, compared to the average 15% depression rate among the elderly as a whole, she said.

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