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Getting it Right on Seniors

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April 2006
Getting it Right on Seniors

In Indian culture, serving elders is considered one of the central duties of an individual and the society. Earning the blessings of elders enjoys a special place in our tradition. On both counts, it is safe to say that the folks at the Gujarati Samaj of Atlanta are doing their highest duties while earning a bagful of blessings.

"What I have not done for 60 years, I am doing now," says a very enthusiastic 74-year-old Vinaybhai Doshi, referring to their raas-garba (a Gujarati folk dance) performance and the weekly practice rehearsals for the same. Originally from Ahmedabad, where she was an ardent temple devotee and also belonged to a popular Laughing Club, 72-yer-old Bhanuben Bodiwala lives with her son and his family in Atlanta. She had not dreamt she would be able to continue—let alone expand—on her social and religious activities in the U.S. But that is exactly what the senior program has done for her. Seventy-two year old Rajnibhai Parikh sums it up well. "It's like a new spring in the winter of our lives! It brings back our youth?and childhood even," he says about the new love in their life.

Why is there such a strong following for this senior program? A lot has to do with the plight of seniors who are often, it seems, neglected amidst the fast-paced lives of two-income nuclear families that are consumed by chasing the American dream. Few bother to understand the very unique troubles and worries of those seniors who came to this country past their peaks. Many of them fall short of the two basic and integral necessities of living an independent and self assured life in the U.S., namely, speaking functional English and driving a car. These two strikes are more than enough to make their lives a virtual prison. Add to that the steep learning curve of adjusting to a whole new set of values, customs and settings, and you have the perfect recipe for disappointment, if not depression.

Thankfully, not all are indifferent to these unique challenges faced by seniors. Organizations such as the Hindu Temple of Atlanta, Shakti Mandir, and the BAPS Swaminarayan temple do have various initiatives to engage and enrich the lives of seniors. Besides, there is the outstanding Senior Citizens Program, Inc. run by Mrs. Raj Razdan and her team.

Yet, in many ways, the Gujarati Samaj senior citizens program is a breakthrough for the Indian community in the area. To begin with, it falls under the banner of a large and successful organization, the Gujarati Samaj, Inc., which has thousands of members and patrons. Besides, this enterprise is more comprehensive and broader than the occasional or even monthly meet that others offer. Indeed, it is fast going the way of a mainstream senior center, offering various activities such as card and carrom games, computer classes, exercise classes, picnics, day trips, fun fairs, and seminars helpful to seniors. And then there is the very important attraction of networking, socializing and making new friends.

All this culminates into a gala annual event – a "senior nite" – where even the normally reserved and mellowed seniors go all out for a performance of dance, drama, mimicry, jokes and more. The last such program drew over 300 visitors. An 83-year-old Mangalbhai Patel, a freedom fighter, spoke of his experiences in the Independence struggle. The piece de resistance of the gala show was a raas performed by seniors, many of whom had never done something like this, even in their younger days. This was a path-breaking event that was covered by the local media and, nationally, by TV Asia.

The seeds of this wonderful program were planted, interestingly enough, at the Georgia Department of Human Resources' Aging Division. Pankaj Sampat, who is the driving force behind the Gujarati Samaj senior initiative, worked in this Division. Having gained an invaluable experience in providing services to various senior centers in metro Atlanta, Sampat was certainly well equipped to duplicate the experiences within the Indian community. But what really set this idea in motion was when Sampat's parents joined him in 1992. Due to his involvement at the senior centers, his parents soon started attending centers in Gwinnett County. He noticed a dramatic positive change in their outlook. They became more cheerful, confident and articulate. This is all the motivation he needed considering that he had often thought of such a program for the Indian community. "After all, assisted living facilities or retirement communities are not concepts that our seniors are used to," he said, explaining the need for such senior programs for those who are living with their adult children in extended families.

As an executive committee member, Sampat was also quite active with the Gujarati Samaj; and so he introduced the idea to the board in 2004, while offering his expertise and time to see it through. Recognizing the need, the board, under the leadership of Amit Shah, the president at the time, readily agreed. "They have been very supportive," emphasizes Sampat, who believes such a program is not easy to pull off without the support of a vibrant community. He acknowledges the support of dedicated volunteers such as Rekha Mehta, Ashwin Shah, Asha Shah, Varsha Shah, Arvind Shah, Mahendra Shah and Jayshree Sampat.

Today, this program is making all the difference in the lives of many appreciative seniors. Where there was boredom and barrenness, there is now energy and enthusiasm. Where there were the depressing confines of the four walls of their American homes, there are now new friendships, new activities and, above all, anticipation and hope.

This enthusiasm is contagious. Inspired by the impact that the program has on their senior parents, the adult children are often fully behind this facet of their parents' lives. Hetal Patel, an accountant from Baroda who came to Atlanta in 1991, says she enjoys driving her mother Sandhyaben Patel to the several meetings and functions of the seniors. Bhanuben's son, Apurva Bodiwala, describes the impact of this activity in his mother's life: "Before this senior program, they didn't have much to look forward to. Now, thanks to the program, it seems they are on a mission! Not only do they have regular monthly meetings, but the fact that they pulled off a major entertainment event, gives them a new confidence." Appreciative of the positive and welcoming environment, Apurva feels that it has made his mother, a widow, feel completely at ease.

And it is not just fun and games. It is not only about what the seniors get out of this, but also about what they are able to bring to it. The volunteering, the cooking together, the sharing of their respective experience and expertise, all bring a new thrill in life. Their ability to contribute and serve was recently put to a formidable test. They were completely in charge of the catering for the grand annual, nine-day event, the Gujarat Samaj Navratri dandiya-raas program, which on weekends attracted more than 6000 patrons. Twenty-five seniors put in more than 1600 hours to ensure that hot and tasty treats such as pav bhaji, khaman dhokla, khandvi, as well as many other chaat items, were served. Whether it involved menu selection or operating cash registers, the seniors did all the work.

Already a program of considerable significance, it is expected to get better. Propelled by the blessings generated, Sampat has ambitious plans for the future of the Gujarati Samaj senior program. He passionately envisions a multipurpose center that would be open through the day for seniors to come at will. The center would have a library, a media room, a game room and more. He visualizes seniors reading newspapers while enjoying subsidized snacks; interacting with their peers; sharing their pet peeves and joys about their American lives; exercising in a group with a professional; attending computer and other classes; and returning home energized and cheerful.

[The Gujarati Samaj senior citizens program is open to all seniors, Gujarati/non-Gujarati, members/non-members. The monthly program is held on the last Sunday of every month between 2:00 and 5:00. Besides, there are several activities and outings throughout the year. For more information, call Pankaj Sampat at 678-546-0556]

By MAHADEV DESAI


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