Growing Old in America's Little Indias
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because old age is changing in every way — and this is one.
By Sanjena Sathian
It’s been four years since Ashok Sinha decided to head to a retirement home. It wasn’t the obvious choice to an outsider: Sure, he’s now 72, with a full career behind him as a satellite engineer and a wife struggling with memory problems. But he is also Indian. And Indians don’t do retirement homes. They do what Sinha’s family, years ago, did with his parents — they set the old folks up to be cared for in their adult kids’ homes. Old-age communities? Those are for white people.
Which is exactly what he found out on his first try, when he moved into a fairly standard complex in Redwood City, California, stocked with a fairly homogeneous population of middle-class white Americans. “I didn’t like the food,” he says. “And there was a lack of community.” He left.
But within a year, Sinha found Priya Living, an Indian-American retirement community around 20 miles away that feels so much like home it even has a vintage phone booth for funsies, the kind people like him once used to make calls between the subcontinent and America. Here, the “elders,” as Priya Living’s founder, Arun Paul, refers to them, keep active and in some ways lead distinctively Indian lives: There are weekly trips to Patel Brothers grocery (and sometimes Whole Foods), and there are traditional Indian classical dance shows. In the mornings, they practice yoga and meditation (which we ought not forget started in India), sing karaoke and play carrom, an Indian board game.
These elders don’t really want to live with their kids — they have financial independence and don’t need to be turned into babysitters and cooks.
As immigrant classes go, Indian-Americans have succeeded — and assimilated — more than most. They’re everywhere! In spelling bees, on television, on C-suite rosters of major companies and in presidential races. It is a trend, of course, that’s only going to pick up. Asians, who tend to live longer than other races, made up just 4 percent of the over-65 American population in 2014; that’s expected to more than double by 2060, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Minorities are increasingly making their way into nursing homes around the country, as the white population dips (often in favor of at-home options). And the final assimilation, into retirement homes far away from the warm core of family, might have seemed just decades ago an alien or even embarrassing concept for elders.
Today, though, times have changed: As the first major wave of Indian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. hits the golden years, the whole nursing home thing is starting to look a little more comfortable. And the market’s responding, with a growing number of specialized outfits, including ShantiNiketan in Tavares, Florida, and My India Nursing home chain in New Jersey. It might not be an easy transition for everyone, but experts point out that these are parents who’ve lived in the U.S. for decades and who raised kids with American values — meaning those kids have their own lives, and the grandkids stare at the iPad more than snuggling into grandma’s sari. Plus, says Paul: “The elders don’t really want to live with their kids, either” — they have financial independence and don’t need to be turned into babysitters and cooks. “The sense is: We have enough money, and our kids don’t have enough time,” says Sarah Lamb, an anthropologist at Brandeis University who studied the rise of retirement homes in India. They’d rather hang out, party a little for good measure and spend their days with doors wide open for chai with the neighbors at a moment’s notice. Which opens up a whole new way to grow old while brown.
So when did the arguable “whitening” of Indian old age begin? Relatively recently, says Lamb — retirement homes have been cropping up back in India too, in part because of the same immigration trends that brought folks here. Families are splintering across oceans, and the market has responded. Old folks are left alone in the motherland and America alike. Many older people whom Lamb interviewed around seven years ago had been brought to the U.S. by their adult children and headed back home as their days rolled on. But that was when options here didn’t exist — those people might have stayed if they had Indian communities here, Lamb ventures.
Not all auntie-uncle dwellings are created equal. Some, like Priya Living, are surprisingly hip, and anything but fresh-off-the-boat: bright, yellow-walled living rooms, lively turquoise-and-mustard, sunny bedrooms, vintage Bollywood pop art on the walls, bottles of Johnnie Walker Black and Bombay Sapphire gin on side tables and funky, artsy chandeliers in breakfast rooms. A whimsical “kulfi” (ice cream) cart sits in the courtyard at Priya Living’s new location in Fremont, decorated with an almost Wes Anderson in Darjeeling Limited touch. It makes sense that Paul’s former life saw him building resorts in Mexico, Costa Rica and Fiji. Today, the Southern California–raised dude sports gold-flecked pants, a funky kurta top-blazer combo and orange Ray Bans perched atop his head — and he has plans to open a location in L.A. this year.
Zip over to the My Indian Nursing home chain, with its nine locations and nearly 500 residents in New Jersey, and you’ll get a very different feel. Residents there are tended to by doctors and nurses often wearing traditional attire, says its founder, Mukund Thakkar. Thakkar, an immigrant himself, arrived in the U.S. in 1989 and took a job in a classic nursing home. He saw a few Indians come through, even then, and was discouraged. They went “down and down and down” from an overall health standpoint compared to other residents — because of food, language and loneliness. About a decade ago, he kicked off the assisted-living communities, which are free, covered by Medicare, as with most nursing homes, he says. He brags to me about just how Indian they are: Hindu prayers twice a day, for example. He rattles off a bevy of festivals celebrated on-site, painting a picture of a comforting whirlwind of subcontinental colors and smells.
Most projects, though, cost a pretty penny, reflecting that Indian-Americans are the best-educated group in America, and wealthy because of it, according to a Pew report. Residents at Priya Living rent at $2,395 for a one-bedroom and $2,695 for a two-bedroom; at ShantiNiketan in Florida, where the buildings are spare, with tiled roofs and thoroughly suburban fencing and driveways, you must buy your property for at least $100,000.
That’s made it tough for some entrepreneurs hoping to cash in, like Mathen Mathew, one of the founders of the in-progress Kerala Gardens community outside of Atlanta. With townhouses at around $200,000 for purchase, and 100 acres of land, Mathew and Co. have spent $30 million on the property and have only three families living there so far. “It’ll be worth it,” he promises. But right now, residents aren’t flocking “because of the economy,” he says, explaining that many who’ve expressed interest can’t sell their homes. (He doesn’t think it’s because the development is in Georgia.)
Which, of course, is the story of too many retirees. Few Americans successfully save for life after work, and many are working longer and longer, past 65. Research in 2010 by economists Courtney Coile and Phillip Levine showed that Social Security needs to be increased after the 2008 crash, straining an already strained system. Meanwhile, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, unemployment for those over 55 reached “record highs” in 2009; in 2015, according to government data, it was a bit better, at just over 3 percent. But here in the sunny Bay, where elders in the rec room at Priya Living are bent over math problems (find the numbers in the matrix that add up to 30!) meant to keep them sprightly, the woes of both money and loneliness seem far away. Old age even looks kind of pleasant.
As much as retirement homes are a new thing for brown people, most of the elders I met said they didn’t skip a beat when considering one. It was a practicality: For 81-year-old Susheela Iyengar, who arrived in the U.S. from Bangalore in 1965, the hunt for a new place began because her son was moving away from Pittsburgh, where they both lived. “He said, ‘I can’t leave you here!’ ” she tells me. With a daughter a few towns from Priya Living, it made sense. Single, ready to mingle with new friends and only a bit sad to leave her home behind, she flew across the country.
I note that Iyengar is American and isn’t exactly like my own grandmother, 24 hours of flight time away in the motherland, as I speak to her. She tries Tamil and Kannada on me, like any good auntie, but then she nods approvingly at my profession. “I love Thomas Friedman!” Indeed, Iyengar and others in these homes were the first adventurers to make it to America. Though Indians have been emigrating to the U.S. since the 19th century — many of them farmers seeking their Gold Rush fortune in Northern California, with a few jumping ship at ports in New York and intermarrying with Blacks and Puerto Ricans — the vast majority arrived after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 passed. That undid a decades-long ban on Asian immigrants, and the post-Nehruvian generation began to jet over, bringing with them medical and engineering education, business savvy and, often, a hunger to assimilate. Ever since, they have filled California and New Jersey and universities everywhere; they’ve built lucrative franchise businesses of Best Westerns and gas stations, and they’ve flooded the U.S., arriving on student and H-1B visas, powering two tech booms.
Though their kids might mimic their accents with wry smiles, some of these elders do have a dose of the nontraditional in them. After all, many left their own parents in the care of siblings, like Sinha — so maybe it makes sense that they’d help incarnate a modern era of aging. Like Rajeshwar Prasad, who’s in his 80s and lives at ShantiNiketan in Florida. A longtime Long Islander, he and his wife took to Florida since their kids live in Virginia and Colorado. Raised in a small village outside Delhi, he tells me that when he left India, his own parents were already in their 60s. They lived with his family in a multigenerational house he bought for them. He checked in whenever possible but saw them age and pass away from afar. It’s how things went: He had left the nest at 18 — much like an American.