The other side of the diaspora experience is loneliness and neglect, particularly for the elderly. Attention and sensitivity can go a long way in ensuring love and care for those who have raised you to adulthood and provided the stepping stone to your success
BY SEJAL DESAI
My maternal grandmother, who I call Ba, turned 110 in December. She is nine years younger than Kane Tanaka, the oldest person in the world.
After two years, I recently had the opportunity to spend time in Mumbai with my parents who are 79 and 83 and have been caring for my Ba through Covid. Observing their collective resilience through very challenging times nudged me to reflect on my Ba’s life and the role of caregivers.
A decade ago, when Ba was about to turn 100, people would ask me, “What’s her secret?” and “Is there longevity in your family?” I knew she had won the genetic lottery but beyond that I did not know what to attribute it to. In search of an answer, I Googled, “What makes people live to 100?” The Blue Zones Project popped up.
The Blue Zones Project, a study conducted in conjunction with National Geographic, identified rare longevity hotspots around the world and looked for common characteristics among its centenarians. Through their research, they developed The Power 9 (secrets of longevity) framework for living a healthy and meaningful life.
When I first read The Power 9 list, I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment. I could connect so many of them back to my grandmother’s story and in turn other Blue Zone centenarians. The list is practical, and we can apply it to modern life. We may not all live to 100, but maybe we can extend our lives by 5-10 healthy, meaningful years. That is what kept me going down the research path and I began to adopt some of these Power 9 habits myself.
GOOD TO KNOW FOR DISTANCE CAREGIVERS
My husband and I have not yet had to step into the role of active caregivers. We have other family members living with our elders in India, so we have been primarily emotional caregivers or caregivers at a distance. Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to observe numerous caregivers: my mother, aunts, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and others. I have also watched my friends and family in the US grapple with distance care—needing to provide for medical and emotional support. These experiences along with my work as a board member of a Dallas-based non-profit, The Senior Source, has helped me develop these six simple yet meaningful strategies for elder care at a distance.
1.DON’T DO IT ALONE: Caregivers, especially those at a distance, need to engage family, friends, and trusted service providers. Having a support system allows others to pitch in by either providing respite care, taking direct responsibility for the senior, or by doing small services to support the caregiver. When my mother was ill with Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic and I was 10,000 miles away, her strong support network of family and neighbours all pitched in to get us through a very difficult time.
Caregivers, especially those at a distance, need to engage family, friends, and trusted service providers. Having a support system allows others to pitch in by either providing respite care, taking direct responsibility for the senior, or by doing small services to support the caregiver.
2.VISIT REGULARLY A planned visit gives your older parent or grandparent something to look forward to. Setting a specific date and increasing frequency of visits is always better than a vague future expectation. Our other interactions, such as texts or phone calls, offer micro-doses
of happiness. But when you visit, it is like a booster shot that fills the elderly with energy and excitement.
Sejal is a passionate advocate and supporter of various US and India based nonprofits focusing on education, hunger relief and women’s issues. Her 30 + year career includes work in sectors like venture capital, M&A, accounting, entrepreneurship, nonprofit and corporate social responsibility. She is the Executive Director for Akanksha Education Fund. She also serves on the Board of The Senior Source. She is a Chartered Accountant from India and holds a Masters in Business Administration from University of Texas at Dallas and Masters in Liberal Studies from Southern Methodist University. Sejal lives in Dallas with her husband, Hemang and two children, Mohan and Maya.
3. IDENTIFY LOCAL TECH SUPPORT Because of Covid, we all started using technology more, including our seniors. Video chats can serve as a substitute for face-to-face interactions. While this is a great way to stay connected with elders at a distance, make sure you can identify dependable tech support locally. When I recently visited India, I would sit down with my parents almost every evening and help them with their iPad, laptop or app log-ins. Even though my dad writes all my instructions down on paper, it is still confusing, and more often than not, he will lose the paper. Having local tech support provided by younger neighbours or local family is really helpful.
4. PLAN ACTIVITIES Even at a distance, you can help your seniors plan activities, like getaways and social time. I recently encouraged them to plan a short afternoon trip to the beach and an outdoor lunch for my parents’ anniversary. They rarely get out these days, so I gave them ideas, offered to make reservations, and curate activities. Caregiving, especially during Covid, was extremely challenging. Even though my parents love caring for my grandmother, they need to stay engaged with each other and life outside of caregiving. Also, during Covid, many seniors were entirely home-bound and now they need to regain the confidence to venture out on their own. Planning simple activities or organised
trips can give them something special to anticipate and rebuild their confidence.
5.CREATE MOMENTS OF JOY During my recent visit, I was tempted to curl into my Ba’s at-home hospital bed (it’s a single) but was worried about crushing her frail body. But as my departure approached, I was overcome with emotion and just did it! Laying my head on her pillow, cuddling up with her like I would many years ago was pure bliss. She can only hear from her right ear now and so she could hear me much better; we spoke for a couple of hours. I hugged her and felt the comfort of my childhood years. I also got a chance to record some of our conversations to share with family. It was pure bliss for both of us. When my husband calls or visits his parents, he brings up a previous
vacation or shows pictures from an old photo album to rekindle memories. It helps them have a meaningful shared experience.
6. FINDING PURPOSE Because of my family, I have a deep passion and interest in older adults, and I am happy to support others on this journey. I serve on the board of The Senior Source, a Dallasbased nonprofit that serves elders in the North Texas community. It was my mom
who discovered The Senior Source when she came to the US over a decade ago to help take care of my kids. With a strong desire to volunteer in the community, she joined the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). RSVP placed her as a volunteer at the local public school and library. Find a local nonprofit in their community to help them get engaged and provide them an opportunity to find continued meaning and purpose in life and meet like-minded people.
My 80-year-old parents are caregivers for my 110-year-old grandmother. My dad recently joked, “Ba may likely outlive us!” But it’s not really a joke. That could happen because caregivers rarely take care of themselves. I wish I could be there to support them and my Ba but I can only do
so from a distance. My parents are my inspiration. As a caregiver, my mom embraces her responsibilities in a profound way. She has derived purpose and meaning in that engagement and I think it has kept her young because she is physically and emotionally vested in the process. I hope to embody their spirit of caregiving when I find myself in that role.