Returning to India Best Option for Some Elderly

Sandip Roy, San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 2010

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Faced with worsening rheumatoid arthritis, Kamath, a U.S. citizen [Betty Kamath, 79], chose to go back to Bangalore, where she had grown up. She didn’t want to be a burden on her children. And assisted living facilities in the United States scared her. She remembers visiting one and seeing the ladies “nails painted, hair done, with lipstick but just sitting there not talking to each other.” In Bangalore, Kamath has a sunny corner room and her own personal attendant.

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“Many find aging in the U.S. to be quite comfortable as long as health is good,” says Sarah Lamb, who researched Indian elders for her book “Aging and the Indian Diaspora.” But she says many elders worry that their children are too busy or too “Americanized” to fully care for them when their health fails. “They think that servants, elder care, devotion to elders, all that is easier and less expensive to come by in India,” says Lamb. “Some are also afraid of being hooked up to very advanced medical technologies that artificially prolong life.”

India seems to offer a compromise–modern amenities (as long as you can afford them) combined with traditional values. Real estate companies in India are sensing a market niche. Chanchal Saha is sales manager for Shrachi Builders, which is building Rosedale, an upscale township, on the outskirts of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.

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Old-age homes in India always carried the stigma of charity and abandonment. The new retirement communities that are wooing the immigrant Indian want to change that image.

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At the Ashiana Ustav complex in Bhiwadi, in the baking, dusty fields a few hours outside New Delhi, the homes come with rails in the bathroom, 24-hour ambulance service and an activities manager. It also has an Indian touch. The vegetable vendor trundles up every day so the residents can get their bazaar fix. But this vendor has been police-verified and has an entry pass. Sadly, no bargaining is allowed.

The units at Ashiana range in price from 15 to 30 lakh rupees ($32,000 to $64,000). Almost half are full.

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Ankur Gupta says elders enjoy living in the United States for two to three months. “But then they find themselves either as babysitters or not having enough to do,” he says. “They’d rather spend nine months in India, where they have lots of friends.”

However, India comes with its own challenges. “I do not think you can really go home again,” sociologist Ashis Nandy says. The expatriates “have First World stomachs and First World tastes. They complain about the bureaucracy, the corruption, the heat and the dust.”

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Though 48 million Indians will be over 80 by 2050, only a handful of facilities are even equipped to take care of patients with dementia. Ashiana has bonsai classes for seniors but no nursing facilities or continuing care. That’s planned for the future, says Ankur Gupta.

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