On the last Tuesday in September, 30 elderly SAIVA volunteers troop out to the parking lot of the Austin Hindu Temple and surround a silver jeep. They take turns clasping the hands of its 82-year-old, front-seat passenger, Ranvir Malik. In alternating Hindi and English, they say good-bye to this friend, with whom they have traversed two foreign lands: Old age and America. They know that they will never see him again.
But as they say good-bye to Malik, there is no talk of the cancer that riddles his body. Nor are there tears. And it hits me then, how courageous these elderly immigrants are. Because it takes courage to grow old, to draw closer to that inevitability which we spend our whole lives denying. It also takes friends. In Austin, SAIVA works to provide this community of support.
SAIVA is a non-profit organization that promotes well-being, education and friendship through volunteering. Since 2008, it has established programs in Austin designed to serve elderly immigrants with South Asian cultural interests. Currently, this organization is fundraising to launch its newest program, South Asian Meals. Through this initiative, volunteers will prepare South Asian vegetarian food that will be delivered to, among others, senior immigrants — a group that is especially susceptible to isolation.
Earlier at the Austin Hindu Temple, before the elderly SAIVA members bid their friend the good-bye, they volunteered together. Sadhana Pandya shared stories about her neighbors back in Bombay. Her eyes lit up behind her glasses as she talked about their daughter, whom Pandya cared for. “They brought her home when she was only four days old — so small,” she said, making a squat distance between her two hands. Pandya currently enjoys spending time with her son in Austin. Still, when asked how she liked moving to America, her eyes dimmed. “So-so,” she said.
“We don’t have friends here of the type that we had in India,” said KG Goel, an 83-year old SAIVA volunteer who lives with his wife in Austin. “And we don’t have transportation so we can’t go to anybody. But we keep busy with t.v. and phone and evening walks. Whatever we can find to keep ourselves busy, we try to do that and don’t think of loneliness because life here is like that.”
SAIVA aims to ease such isolation by providing “congregate” or shared meals to elderly immigrants through it’s upcoming South Asian Meals program. “To be able to share a meal with people like you and laugh with them provides motivation to keep people healthy,” said SAIVA’s founder, Shubhada Saxena. “Not just because of the nutrition in the food, but also because of the social aspect of it.”
Volunteers say that they are looking forward to the launch of this program, as encroaching health problems keep them out of the kitchen and a lack of transportation prevents them from eating out.
“My wife may be needing knee surgery. During that period, she is not able to do all the cooking,” said Goel. “So that time becomes critical. If I could get the food, then I could be independent on my own, and that would satisfy me.”
As part of SAIVA’s fundraising efforts and in celebration of Gandhi’s upcoming birthday, the organization is joining forces with Indie Meme, an Austin based start-up promoting Indian Independent films. Together, they are presenting a screening of Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi.‘ The movie will play at Cinemark Tinseltown 20 on Sunday, Oct. 6, at 1p.m.
“For me SAIVA felt like the ideal organization to work with and fundraise for,” said Alka Bhanot, the founder of Indie Meme. “The work that they’re doing is just so wonderful and it’s so needed for our community.”
Movie-goers can contribute to SAIVA’s cause by donating money when they buy their tickets. The organization hopes to raise money through a $10,000 matching grant. The funds will be used to operate the South Asian Meals program, including the purchase of groceries, kitchen upkeep, and food delivery. Donations may also be used to upgrade the kitchen at the Austin Hindu Temple into a commercial-grade kitchen where South Asian food can be prepared per the city’s health codes and delivered at a reasonable cost — a resource that is otherwise lacking in the community.
Community leaders have also taken note of SAIVA’s contribution to the aging South Asian population. Lesley Varghese is the Executive Director and General Counsel of Austin’s Asian American Resource Center, which hopes to partner with SAIVA in the future. “We have a lot of late-stage immigrants who come [to the U.S.] and they are isolated at home, isolated by transportation, and isolated by language,” said Varghese. “People come here and it can be depressing and take a toll on their physical health. The idea is really to improve their quality of life.”
On Tuesday morning at the Austin Hindu Temple, SAIVA did just that. After a brief meditation session, the elderly female volunteers crowded around a table and I photographed them as they cut up vegetables. The fragrance of mango mingled with the sound of their brazenly off-tune singing and short bursts of laughter. On the opposite end of the small dining space, the elderly male volunteers waited to pack the vegetables for delivery. In the meantime, they took comfort in the familiar: discussing politics.
Soon after, we sat together and ate a lunch of home-made idlis, daal, and my favorite mint green coconut chutney. When I complimented the chef, Prema Raghavan, on her cooking, she broke into a wide smile. And for a moment, she was young again.