- After a lifetime of hard work, professional and financial success, a generation of Indian Americans is retiring. These early immigrants face myriad challenges but with few options.
Indian Americans are known as the most successful minority — their per capita family income is over $93,000. Many of them are financially stable and have good retirement benefits, ensuring their economic independence during their old age. Many of the early immigrants who were in their 20s and 30s when they came to the U.S. have mostly retired. They worked for decades and created extensive social and professional networks. Their children, who were raised in the American culture are now raising their own families. And as the adult children move out, the elderly are left on their own to plan their old age.
I interviewed several senior citizens who shared their stories. Most spoke about crafting a novel vision of aging — welcoming and critiquing the individualistic lifestyle here. Most of them prefer to live independently and don’t want to be a burden on their children. And to do so, they are constantly adapting themselves to the changing physical needs and the demands of the children.
Growing Old in America
Many old people continue to live in their big houses, tied to a feeling of success and accomplishment. Now, they take pride as the head of the family, not necessarily as an active decision-making head, but as a person who presides over family gatherings and gives advice. After retirement, with the loss of professional identity, many hope to live out the rest of their life as grandparents with grandkids running around.
Dr. Neha Jain, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Connecticut, who has several Indian American patients, agrees. “I think that is the expectation.”
Mandakini* Mohanty of Kentucky lost her husband of six decades last summer. They had lived together in this country since the early 1970s. After his death, she feels lost as she had never lived alone. Her daughter lives in the same town, and her son lives in Chicago, but Mohanty wants to continue to live in the same house with the memories of her husband. She has created a daily routine — exercise, cook, and watch Odia television to spend her evenings.
Many don’t want to live in long-term care and don’t want to accept paid household help either.
Nonagenarian Duryodhan* Mishra, one of the first Odias who came to the U.S. in 1948, lives with his wife in the Midwest, close to his son and family. He still lives in a home that he and his wife built, reminding him of his success from a humble beginning in his home state. He takes pride in financing the higher education of his family members back home, who are doing very well. Lately, he wanted to start a foundation to educate the needy back in Odisha, but his son disapproved.
Mishra’s example shows how adult children have a strong influence on the financial decisions of the elderly. Even if the couple is very frail, they still prefer to live in their house and have no desire to move to assisted living. But they do feel socially isolated.
Septuagenarian Charulata* Dash came from India to Minneapolis in 1974, at the age of 24. Just two months after arriving, she got a job as a nurse’s assistant in a local nursing home for the elderly. “The pathetic situation of the elderly was an eye-opening experience,” she recalls and prays that she’d be saved from living an isolated life. Both her sons are married and have their children. Like a good Hindu, she performs her duties as a wife, mother, and grandmother and has reconciled to growing old here. She is open to moving to a nursing home “if I have to,” she says, although she doesn’t want to. “But I learned not to worry about the future.”
None of the elders I spoke with are worried about being a financial burden on their children. But they are concerned about their physical and emotional well-being as they grow old and about living alone without their spouses and the children being distant. The dilemma is compounded when they come to terms with spending their final years in a society with drastically different values, customs, and norms.
Crafting a Modern Independent Living
To have a sense of purpose in life, some seniors have discovered new hobbies; some have moved to new places, but many have continued in homes where they lived and raised their families.
Sonika Goel* immigrated to a university town in Iowa 48 years ago at the age of 22, where her husband had joined as a research scientist at the Veterinary Medical Research Institute. He is now 82 and retired. After living in this country for almost five decades, she does not feel assimilated. Her town in Iowa is conservative, with a 95 percent white population that does not allow much interracial mingling. Still, her neighbors are her inspiration — in their late 80s, they live in their own homes and take care of their properties. “It is easy in this country for anyone to live independently,” she says and believes that senior citizens in the U.S. are more independent and health-conscious than their Indian counterparts because of accessible medical care.
Thus, the Goels have decided to continue to live in the same home where she raised her children. She cooks typical Odia food at home, and the couple stays connected with the diasporic Odia community. “I would move to be near my children when it becomes medically necessary,” she says.
Goel is aware of the inevitable consequence of living long and says that “eventually total dependence will come one day.” She is giving stuff away, downsizing, and simplifying her life. She has seen that when parents go to retirement homes, the children have to get rid of things. Slowly she is preparing herself for that stage.
Like Goel, most respondents reported a close relationship with their spouses. They spoke about how they nurtured their mutual needs and created inter-dependency. With such positive symbiotic relationships, there is a growing concern about what will happen when the partner passes away.
When I asked an elderly friend what her greatest fear is, she replied, “as long as my partner is there, I can climb Everest.” Recently her octogenarian husband had surgeries. She is nervous. “He is my strength; without him, I will lose my space in the earth,” she says. “If anything happens to him, I will try to strengthen my soul. But I will not become a burden to my kids.”
Moving Closer to the Children: A Dilemma
Dr. Sailendra* Mishra is over 75. He arrived in the U.S. in 1975 and became a very successful surgeon in the Maryland area. In 2016, he retired after 40 years of a successful career. He misses his dedicated service to his profession. “At times, it is depressing,” he says. He and his wife have raised two successful children — a son who lives in New York and a daughter in Connecticut. The couple spends summers close to their children and winters in Florida. This year, due to advanced age and his wife’s failing health, they have decided to end the seasonal commute and permanently move close to their children.
In many situations, adult children ask parents to move closer to them, putting constraints on them. Nilima Dash* came to Canton, Ohio 55 years ago at the age of 17. She raised three children — her son is in the Bay Area and her daughters are not too far from her. She has established a close-knit group of friends in the community. Now she is concerned that some of her friends are leaving and moving closer to their children after retirement.
She talks about a physician friend in his 70s and his 65-year-old wife, who decided to move closer to their son and his family in Philadelphia, and their social life has come to a complete stop. Instead, they feel like glorified babysitters, reliving raising their children through their grandchildren.
Many a time, aging Indian immigrants do not make unilateral decisions. Adult children are actively involved in their decision-making process — where they should live and how they should live, especially after retirement. Although they feel constrained by the children’s decision on where they’ll live, they comply.
Similarly, Dr. Pranati* Pattnaik sold her lucrative family medicine practice in Pennsylvania 13 years ago, and with her husband, moved to Kansas close to their daughter, their only child.
After decades of living in the Bay Area, my longtime friends, a beloved couple, made the most difficult decision to move to Arizona to stay closer to their son and his family. They have made the most of that move — they spend quality time with their grandchildren and have become very involved in the local Odia community there.
To some, the closeness to children and grandchildren fills the void of isolation. It gives them a new lease of life and a sense of fulfillment and belonging to the home they have adapted as their own.
Advancing age includes concern for health deterioration, fear of dependency on children, and uncertainty of whether children will make the right decision as they grow older.
In his 2014 book, “Being Mortal,” Atul Gawande dwells on one of the fundamental generational conflicts affecting the lives of older adults. He talks about the desire of adult children to protect aging parents from harm, letting them have something to live for and the freedom to pursue that desire.
Connection to the Homeland
In his seminal 1991 article, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return,” William Safran describes the longing to return to the homeland as one of the distinctive features of the diaspora. Even after leaving their native home decades ago, these elders nurture a yearning for the place they grew up in, the familiar language, food, smell, sound, and touch. They reminisce about the personal, intimate networking they left behind. This yearning comes in many forms.
Sailendra* Mishra visits Odisha every year, sometimes more than once, and is very involved in many projects helping people in his home state. But he is sad that the Odias living in the Western world are forgetting their language, cuisine, and intimate gup sup (interaction). Even after his retirement, he takes great pride in staying in touch with the immigrant Odia community.
Like Mishra, Dr. Pranati* Pattanaik and her husband are very connected to their home state. They have the property in Odisha and go there quite often. Because of her surgery, Pranati* Pattanaik hasn’t gone to India for the last two years. She misses the people, services, personal recognition, and attention back home and craves it. Her husband however spends a few months there. They keep in touch with their family and friends via phone calls.
Dealing With Social Isolation
Social isolation has become ubiquitous as an old age phenomenon. Along with family sensitivity, it is imperative to have culturally appropriate support groups, socio-cultural activities, community education, and state services to combat the negative experiences of the elderly. Many of these elderly are preparing for old age very early on.
Kasturee Mahapatra of Long Beach, California, suggests that the elderly must develop a support group. One need not sacrifice one’s individual independence and interests at the altar of the family. Mohapatra, who has worked with several seniors in the local community, observes that even the wealthiest Indian Americans are reluctant to accept paid help when they need it. Besides the expense, a sense of apprehension about an outsider makes them reluctant and uncompromising. On the other hand, her American clients tell her that they do not want to depend on their children. She laments the fact that despite living in this country for several decades, Indian Americans have failed “to learn the American way. We have made it our home and need to learn from it.”
The Exorbitant Cost of Elderly Care
Gawande says that in the U.S. “more than half of the elderly who live in long-term-care facilities go through their entire savings and have to go on Medicaid—welfare—to afford it. And, ultimately, the average American spends a year or more of his old age disabled and living in a nursing home.” The national average cost of care for just one year in a nursing home is approximately $90,850.
Although they need help at home, these Indian American elders have a hard time adjusting to help from outside. Home health care for the elderly is costly. Even though professional Indian immigrants have done well and are financially secure, many family members cannot afford home health care. There is a constant worry that if the family, especially the spouse, would be left penniless due to the cost of eldercare. As resources become scarce, family members with the best intentions are often unable to access and locate culturally sensitive services for their elderly, and an increasing number of immigrant families are finding themselves in this predicament.
Linda Jena, a long-time resident of the Chicago area, says her father, who immigrated from Odisha in the 1960s, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which was progressing fast. In 2017, the family made a conscious decision for her parents to return to their home in Odisha, to receive personal care. “My parents had more visitors in Bhubaneswar than in the U.S.,” Jena says. “My mother’s brother and sister and their families helped so much.” However, her father passed away in the hospital in 2019. Given the uneven medical system in India, she says she’s unsure if she made the right decision of sending her parents to India. She wonders if her father would still be alive had he stayed back.
This is the dilemma for the elderly — whether to go back to their homeland or plan to die here in their adopted land. This perspective amalgamates many things, including Indian values on joint family, intergenerational relationships, and an understanding of the loss of the first-generation diaspora raising their children in the west. The elders culturally feel integrated into the professional and social life in this country, but do miss their connections. They crave to be with their children but learn to live away from them.
As American anthropologist Elizabeth Colson at the University of California, Berkeley, once said “one needs kin support when one is young and again when one becomes old.”
(*First names of the respondents were changed on their request)
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.