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Nonprofits Help Elderly Immigrants in New York City

Desi Senior Center provides Halal and vegetarian options for its mostly-Muslim Bangladeshi community. (R. Taylor/VOA)
Desi Senior Center provides Halal and vegetarian options for its mostly-Muslim Bangladeshi community. (R. Taylor/VOA)
Nonprofit Groups Try to Help Elderly Immigrants in New York City
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For five hours a day, three days a week, more than 150 aging Bangladeshis exercise, eat, pray and talk together at the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, New York.

A few kilometers away, at the Desi Senior Center, immigrants ages 60 and older exercise on a stage with guidance from a teacher.

These seniors are taking part in programs that they cannot find - and in many cases cannot pay for - elsewhere in the city.

Demographic changes in New York City

New York City has seen major demographic changes since 2000.

The Center for an Urban Future is a research group based in Manhattan.

In a recent report, it said that immigrants make up 49.5 percent of the city's residents who are over the age of 65.

In comparison, immigrants made up 38 percent of that same group in 2000.

The report says there are now more people over the age of 65 in the city than there are children ages 10 and younger.

Older immigrants face language and cultural barriers. They also are likely to face increased isolation and higher levels of poverty than natives.

The Center for an Urban Future estimates that 22 percent of foreign-born seniors are in poverty. It says that this is true of about 15 percent of native seniors.

Christian González-Rivera is a lead researcher at the center.

He said:

“Because the needs are now so much more diverse, along with the diversity of the population, we really need to rethink how it is that we serve seniors across the city in new ways.”

Jahan Ara Amin's story

Jahan Ara Amin is from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She is among the many Bangladeshis at Desi Senior Center who have had problems since coming to the United States.

She and her husband first arrived in 2016. She says she did not feel welcomed by extended family members at her daughter’s home in Texas.

Dilafroz Nargis Ahmed, the Desi Center’s director, explains this is common situation among Bangladeshi immigrants.

Amin spoke through a translator. She became sad as she talked about her problems.

She and her husband chose to settle in New York City because of the large number of Muslim-faith Bangladeshis.

Amin and her husband have yet to find affordable permanent housing. Her lack of English makes it difficult to use public transportation. She says she worries how she “will go outside the next day.”

“When I am home, I feel tension and anxiety,” she said. “But when I come here [the Desi Center], I forget everything.”

Recent arrivals such as Amin are among the 31 percent of older immigrants who do not get Social Security and other federal help. At Desi Senior Center, she receives a warm meal. Otherwise, she is mostly on her own.

Burden on local resources

Anand Ahuja, is an Indian-American immigrant and a lawyer who works on family and immigration law. He says situations like Amin’s still create an “unnecessary burden” on local resources. Some – but not all - of the money for such senior programs comes from public money.

“If your own country members cannot take care of you, that should not be a license for you to be dependent upon the state,” Ahuja told VOA. “If you have a problem of religion, if you have a problem with language…isn’t it better for you then to go back to your home country?”

Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton proposed an immigration bill that includes a visa requirement for parents of citizens “in need of caretaking.” The parents would not be able to work or access public benefits in the U.S. They also “must be guaranteed support and health insurance by their sponsoring children.” Cotton plans to present the bill with some changes later this summer.

Are older adults taken care of when they live with their children?

Lakshman Kalasapudi is the deputy director of India Home, a nonprofit organization. She says many people mistakenly believe that South Asians who arrive as older adults are “fully taken care of” by their children.

She said:

“Our people are more conservative, and more religious and family oriented, so they want to be with the family. But it’s very hard to be with the family nowadays because the children who brought them here, maybe [a] son or [a] daughter, maybe they are on [the] poverty line also.”

Kalasapudi says this can lead to a real breakdown in the family structure. She says it can have a deeply negative effect on the seniors’ mental health. Social isolation among immigrants is common she adds. That problem is India Home’s primary concern.

Subhash Bhasin, 78, and Prabha Bhasin, 74, emigrated from India nearly 40 years ago. They became American citizens. They receive Social Security and government-supported health care. But they too experienced loneliness and depression as they entered old age.

“We went back [to India] and we tried three years, but we could not settle so we came again,” said Prabha.

This time, they found a community through India Home.

“We say our prayers…we sing bhajans,” says Prabha. “We feel like we have an extended family now.”

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Ramon Taylor reported this story for VOANews. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

demographic – adj. of or relating to the study of changes that occur in large groups of people over a period of time : of or relating to demography

affordable – adj. having a cost that is not too high

burden – n. someone or something that is very difficult to accept, do, or deal with

dependent – adj. needing someone or something else for support, help, etc.

breakdown – n. the failure of a relationship or of an effort to discuss something

isolation – n. the state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others : the condition of being isolated

benefit – n. money that is paid by a company (such as an insurance company) or by a government when someone dies, becomes sick, stops working, etc.

bhajan – n. Hinduism a religious song of praise