Finding Youth in a Retirement Home

I live at Ingersoll Place, an assisted living facility in Niskayuna, New York. I pay a monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment with three closets and a kitchenette. I am allowed a microwave oven in my kitchen, but I am forbidden to use it for major cooking.  The rent covers services like food, laundry, bed making, changing bed linen at least once a week, transportation for doctors' and hospital visits, daily chair exercises for the infirm, social events, recreational events like bingo, card games, and spa day once a month.

It has been just over a year since I moved into Ingersoll Place. I have formed new friendships. I am finding out that though I am culturally different from all the other residents—I am the only Indian—we all have the same life experiences. Each one of us has lost loved ones, and we all rejoice that we are blessed with children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. At least two residents have died since I came here. Mortality reinforces the necessity to cherish every moment of our lives.

It was a long and winding road that brought me to my current place of residence. After I retired from teaching at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1989, I could have lived in Rochester with my husband Mani in our modest house, free of mortgage. But he had suffered two heart attacks and I found it difficult to cope alone. My son, Ramani, invited us to live in his house in Niskayuna, NY, or, if we chose, an apartment that was close to his house where he could help us with some of the more onerous chores. My daughter, Uma, was a  pediatrician in New Jersey and she was keen to have her father live with her and be close to medical help. The house where she practiced was big enough to accommodate Mani and me and she would be available most of the day. She and her husband Ram had built another house for themselves and their growing daughter and son, nearby. 

Mani and I decided that it would be better for us to move in with my daughter, Uma.  My son and daughter-in-law lived only three hours driving distance away from us.
My husband, Mani, lived only for a year after our move to New Jersey, but it was the happiest year of his life, being close to the family.

After his death, I was glad to be available to my family. I was an integral part of my children’s lives. I was happy to witness all the important milestones of their children’s lives, too. This arrangement worked fine for about 18 years when suddenly tragedy struck. My daughter, Uma, was killed in an automobile accident when she was coming home from work. My life, after my beloved Uma’s death, was shattered and a blackness enveloped me.

With the passage of time, and what I felt was God’s will to keep me alive to provide emotional support to my  precious grandchildren bereft of their mother, I slowly began to deal with my loss. There was no other choice. Before my daughter’s untimely death at 62, when I was 85 years old, I was still fairly independent, driving around and taking care of most of my needs. With age and grief came physical limitations. I fell down a few times at night when I was alone, and increasingly, I was unable to cope with some of the most basic household chores. That's when I realized that I could not live alone without assistance. 

And so, here I am, with a new family not connected to me by biology, culture, language, or religion but by age, and diminished physical functions. Even though initially it felt strange to be uprooted from my familiar surroundings, my loved ones, and a life that I had known for 88 years, the warmth of fellow residents and the staff looking after me helped me cope with my new incarnation.

Mine is probably not the exception. The old family paradigm of seniors spending their twilight years with their children is increasingly giving way to some form of assisted, independent living as a choice for Indian seniors in this country. Seniors who do not have any major health problems and need assistance only for chores like cooking, housekeeping, laundry, and driving find assisted living a viable option for life in a community without sacrificing dignity and independence. Many  Indian seniors like me came to this country in the late 60s and have worked in various industries, and as a result receive social security, Medicare, and, in some cases, pension benefits, plus their rainy day savings in the form of assets  in  stocks and mutual funds, and in some cases. a mortgage-free house. These sources of income enable them to live in licensed Assisted Living facilities where they can maintain their independence as well as dignity during old age.

The National Census Bureau estimates that by 2050 the number of seniors over 65 years and older will be 88.5 million in this country, more than double the current population of elderly. This calls for timely planning for some kind of retirement living.

Once I moved in, I felt younger than I had felt in a long time. There are 8 residents between the ages of 95 and 101, and 24 residents between 90 and 101. About half the Ingersoll population are nonagenarians.

Life in Ingersoll Place has routine and is structured. The building is located in a quiet area, not too far from the Mohawk Mall which has a grocery store, several department stores and a few eateries. A well maintained garden with a wooded area in the background leads to a porch where residents enjoy the outdoors and very often socialize. The porch leads to an atrium with a fireplace and a comfortable sitting area. There is an Activities Room where most of the daily activities like exercise, bingo and other games take place. The facility has two stories and elevators. The dining hall where three meals are served is both comfortable and elegant.  It is where Ingersoll residents come together, three times a day to eat and relax.  Each table seats four people. I like our table which represents a sort of microcosm of the United States. I am from India, Bill Kurley and his wife Eleanor are of Irish heritage, and Jane Bohunicky is of Italian descent. Two of us are Democrats and Bill is an ardent Republican. I am not sure what Eleanor’s political preferences are. Laughter, friendly spats, and all round fun characterize our table. 

One of the residents makes it a point to wish us at our table, everyday, without fail. Just a simple “enjoy your meal.” But I look forward to the greeting. These are the simple gestures that are the lubricants of society and often make a huge difference.

The  kitchen and dining hall staff are very courteous and friendly. I am the only vegetarian and the cooks serve me delicious, nutritious vegetarian meals, going out of their way to satisfy me. I do miss the sharp, tongue piercing taste of South Indian food but I can’t complain. There are a few Indian restaurants in the area which I visit occasionally when friends or relatives visit me. Occasional trips are arranged by Ingersoll Place to theaters, area malls and restaurants. Visits are arranged to churches, and synagogues on weekends. Religious rites like Communion and Shabbat on the premises take care of the  spiritual needs of some residents. There is a Hindu temple in the area which I visit  sometimes with my son and daughter-in-law.  Occasionally my family also take me to Karnatik music concerts held at the community center adjacent to the Hindu temple. Friends, both from the Schenectady Indian community and from Rochester, as well as my grandchildren visit me occasionally.

Is life perfect in my current incarnation? No. I miss the joy of making coffee or lunch for my grandchildren, both of whom work in the same house where I lived in New Jersey. I remember how their appreciation for my cooking would gladden my heart.  I miss driving my Honda Civic to Patel Cash and Carry, a  grocery store on Oaktree Road in New Jersey, or to Macy’s and Target whenever there was a sale. I miss talking in my mother tongue, Tamil, one of the oldest languages with a rich literature going back to the pre-Christian era. I cannot sleep till nine in the morning here because breakfast is served between seven thirty and nine in the dining hall. Early to bed and early to rise has never worked for me in my adult life.

These are some inconveniences that we have to trade for the luxury of not having to cook, clean, or grocery shop. I am frustrated that I tire easily and cannot do as much as I was able to do even last year. But the  residents here teach me a lesson. In spite of diminishing faculties, they all seem to have a will to live. Many of them use walkers and are hard of hearing. Some are bent with severe osteoporosis. They are active in their own way. Bingo is a religion for them. Some of them do crossword puzzles. Another tends the garden and feeds the chipmunks and birds. Then there is the daily exercise class and last year I even participated in a Spring concert, singing some American favorites from the forties, another piece of Americana that I enjoyed immersing myself in. It was, of course, a far-cry from Karnatik music. It made me realize that I may leave India, but India never leaves me.

My laptop keeps me in touch with just about everything that is going on around me. As Milton’s Satan put it so eloquently in Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell and a Hell of Heaven.”  Ironically, Satan’s words in defiance of God signify that happiness and misery are a state of the mind. The mind is invincible in the worst of circumstances and therefore can create its own heaven through the prism of the mind.

Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.

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