By Brian Goslow
Rita Shah knew the challenges and frustrations of trying to get the nearly 500 Indian seniors in the greater Burlington area to interact with the community at large. In some instances, a language barrier had been a major problem, especially during an emergency.
The Burlington Council of Aging has set out to change that through India-themed programs and lunches; it also hired Shah as its part-time bilingual outreach worker earlier this spring.
“We’re building the social network,” Shah said. “Those who attend might not speak the (English) language or get around the community much, but at our events, they get to meet new people.”
A Wednesday noontime vegetarian Indian lunch has proven to be a real icebreaker. Not only has it attracted members of the Indian community — which makes up just under 5 percent of the town’s population — but those from the Chinese, African-American and Anglo communities as well. They’ve bonded over Indian bread, curried peas with rice and veggie pakoras.
“They all love talking about how to make the food items and they exchange different kinds of recipes,” Shah said. Thanks to her long-running relationship with the Indian Association of Greater Boston, she knows many of the owners of Indian restaurants in the area, who have donated food for the lunches.
“It’s a very good experience; we’re all talking together,” said volunteer Chandra Shekar Meanikam. “Several of the Indian people know English, some only know their own language.” When possible, interpreters are on hand. The center hopes to get funding to create an English class for Indian residents.
“That is the greatest thing,” added Arulmuthu Kolandaiswamy, 70, another volunteer. “It’s bridging the gaps. In my community, it’s good to do some English talking and interacting as well.”
As word of the program spread, more Indian seniors who didn’t have transportation to the senior center let it be known they didn’t want to miss out on the fun. Others have stepped in to help.
“People who are close by pick each other up,” said Sushila Patel, 67. “Some of the people, their spouses work and they don’t have a second car or they’re home by themselves.”
Meanikam said some seniors in the local Indian community spent much of their recent time homebound. “Now they come here and talk to each other,” he said. “They’re so happy here. They get a lot of pleasure and mental satisfaction.”
There’s also Indian Social Time, during which Shah sometimes leads discussion groups that are often based in the spiritual beliefs of its participants. For those born in India with children or grandchildren who were born here, cultural norms can be hugely different.
“We talk about their life here and their life in India and life as a whole,” Shah said. “We talk about how to be tolerant and aware of the situation you’re involved in at the time and the good and bad that happens to you because of their karma.”
Learning how to talk with younger relatives and explain why you do things the way you do and the beliefs behind them can be invaluable, especially for seniors living with their children and grandchildren.
“You explain the culture to them so they understand,” Shah said. “You teach them about the values of life and to respect their elders. They learn from each other and through helping each other.”
Shah said the seniors have returned to the center with stories of what they’ve been able to do to help their children get past the age barrier. “It’s helped make them a happier family,” she said. “It’s great to have these multi-generational families learn to look at and be tolerant of other people’s beliefs.”
There’s another invaluable element of getting people talking to one another.
“We had some elder abuse cases where the seniors couldn’t speak English so nothing could be done,” said Shah, who has worked with the senior center and Burlington Police Department on elder abuse cases for eight years. “Until they ask for help, there’s nothing we can do. It’s a small community. People like to keep their privacy. I tell them when I’m helping them to get services I’ll keep the information to myself.”
She pointed out that a long-standing belief of Indian culture is that abuse issues are kept within the family so that it doesn’t bring shame to the family as a whole. Through her programs, Shah hopes to reverse that belief. Reporting abuse is made more difficult by the language barrier.
“Especially in the case of senior South Asian community members, if they don’t know the (English) language or the resources that are out there for them, they don’t know who to reach out to,” Shah said. “They don’t know whom to trust and whom not to trust. We keep it (our discussions) 100 percent confidential. We want to make sure they’re secure and their basic needs are met.”
Slowly but surely, more of the Indian residents in town are visiting the Burlington Senior Center not just for the Indian lunches, but other activities as well.
“The first time I came here was for Senior Stretch and some yoga programs,” Patel said. Thanks to the stretch program, she learned a few new dance steps she shared with her grandchildren. That allowed her to find a way to break down the generational barrier between them. “They show me their dance steps and I show them mine,” She said.
Patel, just about to leave for the Indian Social Hour, said she likes the Burlington Senior Center. “It’s a very welcoming atmosphere,” she said. “I meet new people all the time and I’m making new friends.”