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To Help Elders, South Asian Scholars Build Global Network

Posted: Feb 19, 2012

Editor’s Note: Researchers helping South Asian elders from India to California rely on networking face-to-face and online to build knowledge globally.

BOSTON—Research on Indian and South Asian seniors and their families who provide care for them is growing, due to initial studies showing that family caregivers and elders often don’t receive the support they need. Whether abroad or in the United States, how Indian seniors are being cared for in their later years is shifting.

There’s no doubt that India is changing—its culture, its economy, and its population’s longevity are finding new bounds. According to the World Bank, life expectancy in India has grown from slightly over 40 in 1960 to approximately 65 in 2009.

Outmigration, which takes many young people abroad--often leaving aging parents behind or transplanting them to a new and unfamiliar land--is altering how elders are cared for.

Those with their parents or parents-in-law in the United States often find themselves juggling a much more demanding work and home schedule while trying to make certain the older adult feels like an integral part of the household and community.

Caregiving a Taboo Subject

One challenge for social and health researchers is that caregiving and its demands is a taboo subject in the South Asian community, said Rashmi Gupta, an assistant professor of social work at San Francisco State University.

“They feel it is not up for discussion,” said Gupta, who presented her research at last November’s Gerontological Society of America (GSA) conference in Boston. “People will say, ‘This is our tradition—whether here or in India. It’s our tradition to provide care to the elderly. It’s written in our dharma, in our epics, in our holy books!’”

However, Gupta’s studies have shown that caregivers in the United States and in India feel the burden of providing eldercare and seniors often feel depressed and alienated.

Daytime programs help to keep older adults active and socially engaged at places such as those in Northern California like the India Community Center in Milpitas and Cupertino and at the Hindu Community and Cultural Center in Livermore.

But Gupta said her research demonstrates that South Asian senior residential facilities are greatly needed for elders who have specific language or cultural needs.

Even though the senior demographic was long overlooked by researchers, Gupta said interest is growing. “I was one of the first ones to be doing aging research on this population, and now there are at least seven or eight people doing research on South Asians in the United States.”

Women and Caregiving in Modern India

Gupta is also doing international research, which she presented at the GSA conference. That study focused on how the modernization of India—with more women leaving home for work--affects home-based eldercare in India and the implications for service providers.

Her study showed that while many family caregivers expressed joy about providing for elders, significant numbers felt overwhelmed. Gupta tested assessment questionnaires to elicit specific information in order to reveal what care providers and seniors were actually experiencing.
She found that elders in poor physical and mental health condition presented caregivers with a sense of burden. Having such details enables social workers or other care professionals to open discussions with family caregivers about their situations and possible options for them in a non-judgmental way.

By adapting these assessment instruments to Indian families, Gupta aims to arm other health and service providers with tools they can use to evaluate such concerns as caregiving stress or burden, depression and the quality of the relationship between the caregiver and care recipient.

Gupta affirmed that even in this age of online networking, direct professional networks through conferences continue to be invaluable for exchanging vital information to aid seniors. GSA’s Boston conference included over 3,500 researchers working in all aspects of aging from around the world. That’s why she joined another researcher to co-found GSA’s Aging In Asia Interest Group (AIAIG) in 2005.

Sharing Knowledge Across Aging Asia

Gupta explained, “Aging in Asia is a network of academics and practitioners who are doing anything related to aging in any of the Asian countries. It is a resourceful group because we have people from all over who are doing aging research in different parts of the world.”

Another AIAIG member, Tannistha Samanta, an assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, in Gandhinagar, India. She said in an interview that the group is a good platform for potential networking and collaborations.

Presentations at the conference ranged from biomedical sciences to epidemiology to demography, she said. She was able to present her research findings on a panel titled “Global Perspectives on Intergenerational Support,” including experts from Japan, India, Taiwan, China and the United Kingdom.

Being able to interact with the conference’s “eclectic mix of experts” over four days, she said, offers a unique platform for high-level feedback on one’s research or opening up new approaches.
Samanta specializes in employing quantitative methods to study health, social demography and aging primarily in South Asia. “My talk focused on how living arrangements shaped health outcomes among the elderly in India,” she said.

She found that multigenerational families in which elders live with their adult children and grandchildren, “have protective effects on elderly health.”

However, Samanta continued, part of this health advantage “can be explained by the fact that these elderly also reside in wealthier households and are typically located in urban areas, with presumably better access and availability of health care.”

Gupta noted that the need for such discussions and studies is evident by the Aging in Asia group’s quickly increasing numbers. “We started with 20 academics and practitioners a few years ago, and now we have 55 to 60 steady members,” she said.

Due to that expansion, GSA will raise AIAIG’s status to a more formal status within the Society at its 2012 meeting in San Diego next November. The change will enable the group more flexibility in organizing educational programs.

“Our force is being recognized,” Gupta said, smiling.

Nadia Maiwandi, a communications and development associate for a nonprofit in San Francisco, is the former events editor for India Currents. She wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship program, a project of New America Media and The Gerontological Society of America.

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