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Dream America: But who will talk to aging immigrants now?

world Updated: Sep 04, 2009 01:16 IST
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They gather five days a week at a mall called the Hub, sitting on concrete planters and sipping thermoses of chai.

These elderly immigrants from India are members of an all-male group called The 100 Years Living Club. They talk about crime in nearby Oakland, the cheapest flights to Delhi and how to deal with recalcitrant daughters-in-law.

Together, they fend off the well of loneliness and isolation that so often accompany the move to this country late in life from distant places, some culturally light years away.

“If I don’t come here, I have sealed lips, nobody to talk to,” said Devendra Singh, a 79-year-old widower. Meeting beside the parking lot, the men were oblivious to their fellow mall rats, backpack-carrying teenagers swigging energy drinks.

In this country of twittering youth, Singh and his friends form a gathering force: the elderly, who now make up America’s fastest-growing immigrant group. Since 1990, the number of foreign-born people over 65 has grown from 2.7 million to 4.3 million — or about 11 per cent of the country’s recently arrived immigrants. Their ranks are expected to swell to 16 million by 2050. In California, one in nearly three seniors is now foreign born, according to a 2007 census survey.

Many are aging parents of naturalised American citizens, reuniting with their families. Yet experts say that America’s ethnic elderly are among the most isolated people in America. Seventy per cent of recent older immigrants speak little or no English. Most do not drive. Some studies suggest depression and psychological problems are widespread, the result of language barriers, a lack of social connections and values that sometimes conflict with the dominant American culture, including those of their assimilated children.

The lives of transplanted elders are largely untracked, unknown outside their ethnic or religious communities. “They never win spelling bees,” said Judith Treas, a sociology professor and demographer at the University of California, Irvine. “They do not join criminal gangs. And nobody worries about Americans losing jobs to Korean grandmothers.”

Singh, the widower, grew up in a boisterous Indian household with 14 family members. In Fremont, he moved in with his son’s family and devoted himself to his grandchildren, picking them up from school and ferrying them to soccer practice. Then his son and daughter-in-law decided “they wanted their privacy,” said Singh, an undertone of sadness in his voice. He reluctantly concluded he should move out.

“In India there is a favorable bias toward the elders,” Singh said, sitting amid Hindu religious posters and a photograph of his late wife. “Here people think about what is convenient and inconvenient for them.”

Sociologists call Singh and his cohort the “.5 generation,” distinct from the “1.5 generation” — younger transplants who became bicultural through school and work. Immigrant elders leave a familiar home, some without electricity or running water, for a multigenerational home in communities like Fremont that demographers call ethnoburbs.

For the men in the 100 Years Living Club, the road leads to the Hub, where they have been meeting for 14 years, since the Target store was a Montgomery Ward. Patel, who was an herbal doctor in India, started the group after he noticed his friends were in “house prisons,” as he put it, without even the confidence to use a bus. The men keep their spirits alive by sharing homemade chaat snacks. They are the lucky ones.