Having no money is the biggest hardship that faces South Asian seniors living with their children, but our elders don't talk about the issue, choosing instead to suffer on in silence.
It is not necessarily poverty they face, for their children take good care of them-- or at least as best they can. But it is, rather, a sense of powerlessness, and the inability to be able to take their own decisions when it involves any money... even if this is just a small amount.
"There are other challenges unique to us," Bhagavat Pandya, vice-president, Gujarati Seniors Club, told South Asian Focus. "Our children may in some instances not want to get us, their parents, to Canada... or are unable to. But they do need us, to baby-sit, walk the grandkids to school and pick them up, cook, and generally help out around the house.
"Then again, boredom, and difficulty in being able to regularly get together with our peers-- since transport can be a major issue, especially during the winter months-- are other issues facing us.
"There are yet other challenges on an entirely different level; for instance, seniors within our community are required to wait 10 years here before they can apply for state benefits (unlike some other communities who qualify after just three years). Again, getting the visas or PR cards might prove a challenge."
Health issues and family harmony are other matters that could face elders in the community. "But financial hardship is the Number One problem," Pandya emphasized.
While there are several institutions and not for profits offering their services, many within the community prefer to go with their own informal peer group. Hence was born the Gujarati Seniors' Club, Brampton, in 1999. Today the group totals 150... and counting.
Pandya, who came to Canada as a civil engineer back in 1972 and since trained himself as a Canadian food supervisor and dietician, had always involved himself with community activities-- having been particularly active in the Hindu Prarthana Samaj-- and therefore had experience of establishing and organizing such not for profit entities. Working together with other like-minded individuals in the group who also had similar extensive experience, the club soon carved out a distinct identity.
"For instance, we are not involved in any religious activities, although we do celebrate major events such as Diwali, Canada Day, Christmas, Mahatma Gandhi Day, August 15 (India's Independence Day), etc," he said.
Then again, the club does have a membership fee: the princely amount of $10, per annum. But the work is carried out on a strictly voluntary basis. Entrance to the club is restricted to those of age 60 and above, with the group meeting monthly every second Sunday 2 to 6 p.m., to a program tailored to their needs.
"Typically, proceedings at such meetings might include, a brief prayer and laying out the agenda for the afternoon; a doctor or other professional explaining (in Gujarati) some aspect of dental or health care [there could be a language barrier, especially for the older people]; a brief exercise or yoga lesson; a news reading session to inform ourselves on relevant issues happening locally/abroad/in India; a community care-giver or police invitee giving practical tips on adapting to living in Canada or what to do in an awkward family (or abusive) situation; celebrations of birthdays or wedding anniversaries; a music program where a musician plays old songs; and dinner from a sponsor," Pandya explained.
The late spring and summer months may also see more extensive outings and picnics, at which families are invited. But the membership itself is restricted to the 60-plus age group.
The club is also run along more mature lines than several other community organizations, where the members often indulge in bitter internecine warfare for the dubious honour of being elected to the managing committee.
For instance, apart from the president, the club has two office-bearers for every key position: for instance, two vice-presidents, and two secretaries. "This is in case one falls sick or is otherwise incapacitated, given our advanced age," Pandya smiled. Nor is there an unseemly scramble to get on to the board: it is a natural voluntary process that happens amicably every December.
Pandya suggested with Canada representing an aging population, and with the South Asian community itself steadily becoming an increasingly visible minority, the authorities should look at ways of better integrating seniors into the mainstream while providing some level of financial support that kicks in a lot sooner than 10 years into their stay in Canada.
There are, meanwhile, things the seniors can do, rather than opt to suffer in silence, he added.
"We ourselves should also cooperate with our families and children and 'fit' better into our households, making ourselves useful by taking on household chores-- and our children should also heed their parents' occasional needs, such as dropping them off weekly for visits to the mandir or at get-togethers with their circle of seniors," he said.
The Pandya residence itself is enviable: there are four generations living within, providing the extensive social support of the extended family to all its members.
He urged newcomers to be patient while working steadily towards their goals. "Here in Canada, you definitely do get the fruits of your labour... but all in its time."
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How 'preeti bhoj' started
Ever wondered how come all temples throughout Canada today offer 'preeti bhoj' to devotees?
As 35-year Canadian resident Bhagavat Pandya says it, the practice started in the mid-1970s when he was closely associated with the Hindu Prarthana Samaj temple in Toronto.
"We used to find devotees hurrying away quite early, and the temples would be very quiet by 5 p.m. itself. When we probed a bit deeper, we found many in those days depended on public transit, and had to get home early enough to cook dinner.
"It was then that the Hindu Prarthana Samaj decided to start providing preeti bhoj-- and the idea quickly caught on right through the GTA," and Canada itself. -- S.R.