By Paula Span, THE NEW OLD AGE
Ram and Geeta Chandran had always planned to move into a senior community after they retired. The couple had no children, and “we knew we had to move to a retirement community so we wouldn’t be lonely in a huge house,” said Geeta Chandran, 72, a family physician.
Then they came across an online ad for ShantiNiketan, a planned 55-plus community in Tavares, Fla., designed for Indian-Americans. (The name, in Sanskrit, means “peaceful home.”)
The Chandrans, who had emigrated from India in 1970, found the prospect of aging with others from their home country appealing.
Indian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s and ’70s for educational and work opportunities have begun to downsize and contemplate their postcareer years, said Iggy Ignatius, 60, ShantiNiketan’s chairman. “Many people were thinking they’d go back to India, but pragmatically, it’s not possible,” he said. “Our children are here. Our grandchildren are here.”
In Florida, from the architecture that reminds Dr. Chandran of Chennai, India, to the vegetarian meals and Bollywood dance classes, “we have created a mini-India, a piece of India,” Mr. Ignatius said.
The Chandrans moved into their three-bedroom condominium in 2011, paying $250,000, and now they lead yoga classes in ShantiNiketan’s meditation room.
Mr. Chandran, 77, a former corporate vice president, conducts Hindu prayers each weekday morning in a small on-site temple. For festivals, Dr. Chandran puts on the silk saris she found few occasions to wear in Newport News, Va.
“You feel more at home here,” she said.
Developers call these kinds of housing options “affinity group communities,” said Robert G. Kramer, chief executive of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care, an industry research group.
In addition to those established by and for members of religious groups, they include retirement communities for military officers, for gays and lesbians, and for the alumni of particular colleges and universities.
Facilities for specific ethnic groups have appeared more recently, but “I think we’ll see more of them,” Mr. Kramer said. “We’re such a polyglot culture.”
Among those already in operation:
■ Aegis Gardens, a 64-unit Chinese-American assisted living complex in Fremont, Calif., opened in 2001. With a staff that speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, daily tai chi sessions and a Chinese chef, it maintains nearly 100 percent occupancy, said Dwayne Clark, the chief executive of Aegis Living.
So the company, which operates 30 assisted living facilities on the West Coast, is building a second Chinese-American facility, a $50 million independent living, assisted living and memory care campus in Newcastle, Wash., scheduled to open next year.
Monthly rents are likely to start at $5,300, executives said, not including help with the activities of daily living.
■ ShantiNiketan began with 54 apartments when the Chandrans moved in. Now it has 174, with 120 more condos for Indian-Americans under construction, and Mr. Ignatius plans an initial public offering to finance similar developments near Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago.
■ Dr. Mukund Thakar began creating Indian-American floors in New Jersey nursing homes a decade ago, hiring Indian physicians, nurses, aides and dietitians. His Indian Nursing Home program now operates in eight facilities around the state and one in the Bronx.
■ In Queens, a small nonprofit group called India Home runs “culturally appropriate” senior center programs for South Asian immigrants. The Desi Senior Center in Jamaica, Queens, for example, attracts older Bangladeshis with hot halal lunches, English instruction and a screen separating men from women in exercise classes.
“There’s a Catholic Charities senior center two blocks away, but they would not go there,” because nobody on the staff speaks Bengali, said Lakshman Kalasapudi, India Home’s program manager.
As for Latinos, “I expect to see the first Hispanic facilities in Southern California and the Southwest,” said Mr. Kramer of the National Investment Center.
For years, New Old Age readers from other countries have insisted that their cultures revere elders and revile children who don’t care for their parents in multigenerational homes. But even in those societies, where elder care frequently depended on the unpaid labor of women, demographic and socioeconomic shifts have made a difference. Nursing homes have sprouted across China, for instance.
Though Chinese-American families (like most American families) try to keep older relatives at home as long as possible, “a lot of my residents have said it’s very lonely if your children are at work, your grandchildren are at school, and you’re alone with a caregiver, dozing in front of the TV,” said Emily Poon, the general manager of Aegis Gardens in Fremont.
In standard assisted living, they might feel even more disconnected. “The majority can’t speak English well,” Ms. Poon said. “They couldn’t communicate effectively with the staff or the other residents.” They might find the food unpalatable, the activities unengaging. Isolation breeds its own physical and psychological dangers.
Alice and George Louie, 90-year-old Chinese immigrants, moved to Aegis Gardens in 2012 to be near their daughter and son-in-law. The staff helps Mr. Louie, who has dementia, with his medications. Mrs. Louie, who has diabetes and uses a walker, practices tai chi and calligraphy. They eat meals with other Cantonese speakers.
“For the Chinese New Year, you never saw a place so extravagantly decorated,” Mrs. Louie said. The festivities included traditional lion dancers, jugglers and gymnasts; the dining room served dim sum.
For administrators, ethnic facilities can pose special challenges. Aegis executives had to petition to change the Fremont community’s street address, Mr. Clark said, because it contained the numeral 4, considered unlucky in Chinese culture. Inside the facility, apartment numbers jump from 103 to 105 and 239 to 251.
Days before the opening, a feng shui practitioner decreed that the fountain in the courtyard be torn out because its outer rim contained points; he was mollified when workers hastily sawed off the points.
A larger challenge: How long will the market for ethnically specific senior housing and programs last? Immigrants’ more assimilated offspring may care less about traditional cooking or a Gujarati-speaking staff. “For first-generation Indians, this is working out great,” Mr. Ignatius said of ShantiNiketan. “I’m not sure my children will come here.”
But if the need 40 years hence looks uncertain, the demand right now is pressing, said Dr. Vasundhara Kalasapudi, the executive director of India Home. The group wants to establish day programs for South Asians with dementia, as well as assisted living facilities and nursing homes.
“This is a common topic for all of us, how difficult it is to take care of families with medical problems,” she said.
Or nonmedical problems. Dr. Kalasapudi, a geriatric psychiatrist, recalled being pressed into service to talk to a hospitalized Indian immigrant who suffered, the staff believed, from depression. Her mother tongue was Telugu, but they managed to communicate in Hindi.