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The Golden Years

April 2007
The Golden Years

Whether they feel the pull of India or the pull of America, Indian American seniors today have an increasing number of retirement options.

A golden watch from the company and lazy reading sessions on the front porch? these are the traditional images surrounding retirement. What they don't take into account is the thought and planning, if not apprehension, that is involved in tackling this golden phase of one's life.

Even without the added dimension of our ethnicity, retirement is an issue with many facets and decisions. For Indian American seniors, there are added decisions to be made. Is living with the family of their adult children an option? Should they choose mainstream assisted living communities or the ones that are specifically for Indian retirees? Is going back to the native country more desirable?

Out of the tide of migration from India to the United States in the ‘60s, the overwhelming majority were young professionals and graduate students in the prime of their lives. Now, decades later, many amongst this first wave of immigrants have started retiring, and many more will retire in the coming years. It's also true that later waves of migration, starting in the '80, included a lot of older dependants such as parents. So by now, we have a substantial community of seniors who require—or will increasingly require—retirement options.

A large number of these earlier immigrants had, conceivably, planned to retire in India. But now that their children are grown and comfortably settled here, many are bound to have second thoughts. Though seniors may wish to cultivate a more spiritual life, or pursue social and cultural interests, it doesn't mean they wish to lose touch with their families, especially grandchildren, or give up the benefits of America. Nevertheless, the attraction of India remains irresistible for many. So, for those who don't have the luxury of traveling back and forth frequently, this crucial turning point in life presents both dilemmas and interesting possibilities.

India Calling

Not all that long ago, NRI was a novel acronym that needed frequent explanation. Even after its usage became common, India frequently saw NRIs as Never-Returning Indians rather than Non-Resident Indians. That's hardly the case nowadays. Not only are NRIs returning to India in droves, but India has also embraced them wholeheartedly. There's now a separate ministry dedicated to NRIs and people of Indian origin, and India has also enticed them with the offer of overseas citizenship. This love-fest also highlights the emergence of returning NRI retirees, a category that will probably wield considerable clout in the coming decades.

Just recently, Pankaj Sampat, director of the Gujarati Samaj Senior Citizens Program (GSSCP), held a discussion to weigh the pros and cons of retiring in India. For the past three years he has been holding these once-a-month gatherings which attract 70 to 150 people. It's a forum for them to interact with each other and tackle issues relevant to seniors.

"Overall, it seems as if seniors ideally wanted to go back to India because it is prospering," Sampat says. "Out of the top 20 billionaires in the world, 3 are from India. Aside from certain advantages of such prosperity, there are no transportation issues. For seniors living in Atlanta, this is a big problem. It's less of a problem in cities like New York or Chicago, where they have good transportation."

The general consensus among seniors, according to Sampat, is that they don't want to be a burden on their children. Being bedridden and wholly dependent on family members is a common fear. At the same time, they dread facing some of the challenges in India, especially the high levels of corruption. "For example, there have been a couple of instances where a few NRIs went back to settle in India and had problems receiving their Social Security checks," he notes. In the U.S., the government simply deposits the check into the senior's bank account. That can be a problem in the smaller towns of India, where one has to pick up the check at the bank. Many seniors have encountered difficulty and, as Sampat points out, government officials asked for bribes before handing over Social Security checks. As a result, seniors are afraid and often feel powerless. Not surprisingly, a recent BBC poll found that seniors in India are resigned to high levels of corruption.

Sampat himself is about 10 years away from retirement and would like to go back and forth in his twilight years. Most of his friends and members in the community, as far as he can tell, prefer to do just that. He also feels a greater social responsibility and wishes to do charitable work in India. "I want to use the experience and knowledge I have gathered from here to help with the rampant social problems and poverty. I feel that this generation needs to give back to the community when they retire."

While India does have problems with bureaucracy, pollution, and traffic, things are changing for the better in many ways. A demographic shift has created a huge population that is young, and their attitudes are quite different. In the BBC poll mentioned above, those in the 18-25 years age group were much less tolerant of corruption. Returning expatriates planning to retire in India after having lived several years in the U.S. hope to benefit from the changing culture.

Economically too, there are several advantages for this group. Given the dollar-rupee exchange rate, NRIs in India do have the advantage when it comes to purchasing power. In Delhi, reportedly, billions of dollars are being spent on a development project for aging NRIs. Sampat notes that though a root canal in the U.S. may cost $1500, the same job—without sacrificing quality and care—can be done in India for $200.

In 2006, an in-depth study called "The Future of Retirement" by HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation) focused on several countries, including India. As per one key finding, "Indian people are more likely than those elsewhere to see retirement as a period of rest or as a continuation of what life was, and less likely to see it as a new chapter in life." India scored 10 percentage points higher than the rest of the world in this category. Also worth noting is that 87 percent of Indians, as opposed to 70 percent in the rest of the world, "want to spend a lot of time with family and friends, and less time taking part in activities that are considered important elsewhere."

Indian Retirement Facilities

The timing for such a study couldn't be better, given the rapid changes taking place in India. "For the elderly, the family has been the great security net," pointed out India-based Smita Prakash on PBS (Nightly Business Report) last year. "As parents aged, their children took care of them. All of that is changing as the demands of a growing workforce are leaving the elderly alone at home." With 18 million seniors in India, she added, there are only about 100 retirement homes. So it has created a huge market for residential care facilities, independent senior's residential communities, assisted living facilities, and registered agencies that provide trained personalized home care.

Sensing the expanding opportunities, developers are also building homes and flats for high-income NRIs who are expected to return from the U.S. and other countries to retire in India. Noting that they're being refurbished to meet the needs of seniors, an article in Rediff.com adds, "Among the developers who have forayed into this segment are several reputed ones such as Paranjpe Builders and Gera Developers of Pune, Bangalore's Brigade Group, and the U.K.-based Goldshield, which is developing homes in Goa, Kerala, and Dehradun." All these locations are highly desirable among retirees. Also worth mentioning is Mumbai and its suburbs, where Goldshield will open its first Well-being Village in India.

Atlantan Prabha Varma recently went to a planned community in Hyderabad, India. She was quite impressed. "This place was designed for seniors who were not bedridden or needed nursing care," she says. "There were about 50-100 residents and most had families in the U.S. and did not want to depend on them. There were mostly women, widows and a few couples. Amenities included communal dining, Bhagavad-Gita classes, yoga, meditation courses arranged with outside groups, places to walk, beautiful gardens, and places to do your own gardening." It is so popular that there's a waiting list to get in, she points out. The fact that it filled up as soon as the construction was over is a good indication of the pent-up demand for such facilities. Varma's father is trying to build a retirement community in his village. The completed wing, equipped with a kitchen, can already house 6-8 people.

In bigger cities, the demand is so great that prices have skyrocketed, making individual homes unattractive for those who want better value for their money. Flats or condos in high-rise buildings, on the other hand, are more affordable.

Staying in America

Of course, it goes without saying, a great number of Indian Americans have no intention of retiring in India. The reason can be, quite simply, an attachment to the States, where they may have already lived a good portion of their life. Other reasons can range from family and friends to lifestyle and health issues.

Seema Mason is co-founder of Mason Personal Care Homes, a nonprofit organization here in Georgia to provide assisted living to elderly Indian seniors. "My dream is to set up a facility that caters to the serious medical and social needs of our community seniors in Georgia," she says. "Other states like New Jersey have an exclusive nursing home for Indo-Pak clients. Our home is one of the first steps in a long path that will help our seniors spend the rest of their lives in America and feel more productive."

Mason caters to seniors who are keen on maintaining their ties to Indian culture. Conversing in Indian languages is not a problem and nobody needs to feel left out. The food is typically desi, and Bollywood films are routinely screened for the residents. Trips are arranged not just to stores and parks, but also to seminars and houses of worship. Family members are welcome to bring food items anytime and special offerings on religious occasions. Registered nurses, physical therapists, and doctors are always available, if needed. Medical appointments, along with the necessary transportation, are arranged at no cost to the resident. "My advice for our community leaders is to help expand the concept of day programs in personal care homes," Mason says. "Day programs as well as transportation are paid by Medicaid for some eligible people."

Even in the mainstream, a number of options are available for seniors. According to the Georgia Affiliate of the Assisted Living Federation of America, assisted living care promotes maximum independence and encourages involvement of a resident's family, neighbors, and friends. Assisted living communities are sometimes called residential care facilities, personal care homes, adult congregate living facilities, catered living facilities, retirement homes, homes for adults, or community residences. Buildings can range from a purpose-built, high-rise apartment to a converted Victorian home to a renovated school. They can be free standing or housed with other options, such as independent living or nursing care.

There is no single blueprint because consumers' preferences and needs vary widely. Costs vary with the community, unit size, and the types of services needed by the residents. Across the nation, daily basic fees range from approximately $15 to $200 ($5,475 to $43,000 annually). The basic rate may cover all services or there may be additional charges for special services. Residents or their families generally pay the cost of care from their own financial resources. Depending on the nature of an individual's health insurance program or long-term-care insurance policy, some costs may be reimbursable. In addition, some residences have their own financial assistance programs. Some state and local governments offer subsidies for rent or services for income-eligible elders. Others may provide subsidies in the form of an additional payment for those who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Medicaid. Some states also use Medicaid waiver programs to help pay for assisted living services. Some assisted living services may be tax-deductible.

India in America

Outside such pragmatic considerations and number crunching, there is also the issue about the subjective and philosophical aspects of retiring. Ancient Indian society, it's been said, was divided into four stages of life: student, householder, retiree, and ascetic. For many, after fulfilling their worldly obligations, there comes a stage when they may wish to pursue a more contemplative life. It was customary in the traditional Indian mold to embrace living in an ashram during this phase.

While a fast Westernizing India is increasingly leaving behind such vestiges of Indian culture, in a strange turn of events, such options are now being spotted right here in the U.S. In Tennessee, the Isha Foundation is designing a community (Isha Village) that will come close to ashram living while incorporating the offerings of modern living such as high speed internet access. Defying simple definitions, the Isha Village is conceived essentially as a Condo community designed with Indian seniors in mind, and with an emphasis on mind-body wellness and spiritual development. As such, the community is set in a preserved green space and forest with access to bluffs boasting views of beautiful mountain vistas as well as hiking trails that lead to a scenic waterfall.

For the Indian American senior who appreciates the glorious heritage of yogic traditions but is also vested in America through perhaps a couple of decades of setting roots in the country, the Isha Village, as it is conceived, appears to offer a solution that is more than just right. The dining hall on the premises provides healthy organic food conducive of the lifestyle envisioned. In addition, at the planned wellness and rejuvenation center, ancient therapies such as massage and ayurvedic remedies, along with modern health care are in the cards.

Kalpana Rajdeev, a medical doctor, is one of the key administrators at the Isha Foundation. Along with her husband Hitesh, a structural engineer, Dr. Rajdeev was drawn to the concept of Isha Village as she is keenly aware of the physical and psychological benefits of such a promising environment. "The ashram life is very simple but we are quite comfortable," notes Dr Rajdeev. "We eat two nutritious and freshly prepared meals every day, often superior in quality to home cooked meals or restaurant food. We have not thought much about our home since we came here."

Residents thrive on the opportunity of working with many new people, some of whom they come to know intimately. They practice yoga for two hours every morning, starting at 5.30 am; it gets them energized and rejuvenated for the rest of the day. They get to know people at a personal level, yet do not feel caught up in the hassles of the day-to-day life outside.

The Lengthening Golden Age

The dictionary definition of ‘retire' (to withdraw, as for rest or seclusion) seems unsatisfactory in certain ways when applied to seniors. American life expectancy has risen by over three decades over the past century to reach an average of 78. Though life expectancy in India is still in the 60s, what's astonishing is that a growth of three decades took place there over just half a century. No matter where Indian American seniors choose to reside, they can look forward to a golden period that can be both productive and fulfilling. Options and amenities are increasing like never before, and it's also much easier to stay in touch with family and friends from anywhere. Having performed their worldly duties and outgrown their material desires, seniors are truly free to pursue a deeper, richer life. It's no wonder that, often, the most beautiful part of the day is when the sun sets and the sky turns golden.


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