Immigrants crave a taste of home

For Ava Mukerjee, one Thursday every month rates high on her list of favorite activities. It's the day a taxi comes to the suburban house she and her husband share with their son and takes her to the Sharon Community Center.

Here, as the aroma of curry and chutney fills the air, she joins other retired people for an unusual event: an ethnic meal and entertainment designed especially for older immigrants.

While lunch programs for seniors have existed for decades, some are taking on a foreign flair to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse culture. In Sharon, sari-clad grandmothers and a sprinkling of grandfathers savor familiar Indian dishes.

Native cuisine is only one of the attractions. "I meet people, I see people," says a smiling Mrs. Mukerjee, dressed in a blue and white sari. "I enjoy the environment. At least I can come out of the house."

Getting out of the house to enjoy favorite foods ranks as an infrequent pleasure for many older foreign-born residents. Some speak little or no English. Many do not drive. Those who live in the suburbs, where public transportation is often nonexistent, may be alone all day. Some waited until their retirement years to join adult children in the United States, adding to the challenge of acculturation.

To ease their isolation, social-service groups offer not only ethnic meals but also cultural and educational activities geared for specific ethnic groups. The combina- tion provides what Norma Simons Fitzgerald, executive director of the Sharon Council on Aging, calls "food for the body and the soul."

"Many older people, especially widows, are here without money," Ms. Fitzgerald says. "Their children are off working and don't even realize Mama doesn't have 25 cents to go on the bus. Mama doesn't want to burden the children. In their own country, they live in areas with a lot of relatives. Here they don't have as much opportunity for the same kind of socializing."

Sharon, 25 miles south of Boston, has a higher percentage of minority residents than surrounding towns. The Sharon Council on Aging and Hessco Elder Services, sponsors of the Indian meal program, host a Russian meal as well. Funds for both come from federal and state money, as well as donations.

On this autumn Thursday, more than 35 retired people, one-quarter of them from India, gather around festively covered tables. After a session of "chair yoga," a young Indian woman, Veena Teli, explains the significance of India's Festival of Lights to non-Indians in the group.

As participants enjoy an Indian vegetarian dish with chutney, lemon rice, yogurt, and a holiday dessert called burfi, quiet conversations in Indian dialects and English fill the air. A local restaurant prepares the food from a menu chosen by nutrition director Chandra Ganapathy to meet federal nutrition guidelines.

Mukerjee and her husband followed their son and his family to Massachusetts. They have moved wherever his job dictates - Minneapolis, San Antonio, Miami, and now Boston. Referring to her family, she says simply, "They are busy with their own things."

Sampath and Chandra Nallappa, two other regular participants, also live with their son's family. "At home we are lonely, because both of them are going to work, and our grandson is in middle school," Mrs. Nallappa says. Mr. Nallappa spent 45 years as a personnel manager for a large company in India.

Meeting needs of many nationalities

Similar food programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul help Koreans, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Latinos. Minority dining sites are expanding faster than mainstream senior centers in Minnesota, says Lisa Sawyer of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging. More than 40 percent of immigrants in the state arrive as refugees, almost three times the national average.

In the Twin Cities, Meals on Wheels delivers ethnic food to Hmong and Hispanic residents. Recipients refused to eat mainstream meals, sometimes saving them for their grandchildren. Those delivering the food must be bilingual. "If the elders are left home alone during the day because their children are out working, they are reluctant to open the door for a volunteer unless that person speaks their language," Ms. Sawyer says.

She tells of one study that shows the value of ethnic meals in improving well-being. Researchers assembled two groups, one from Korea and one from Sweden. The first day the Koreans ate a Swedish meal, while the Swedish volunteers ate a Korean meal.

Researchers monitored their interaction during the meal - how much they talked and laughed, how much they ate. Most didn't finish the unfamiliar food. Medical tests found that their bodies did not absorb all the nutrients. The next day the two groups ate food from their own culture. They talked and laughed more during the meal, and ate more. Researchers said their bodies absorbed more nutrients.

A sense of pride and recognition

In Portland, Ore., separate meal sites serve Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Speaking of the Japanese group, Donald Yongchu, coordinator of Multnomah County Aging and Disability Services, says, "This means a whole lot to them. They feel like the city, the overall society, recognizes that there is a Japanese community."

In Snohomish County, Wash., weekly ethnic meals serve Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Chinese. The Koreans meet twice a week, drawing as many as 100 people. They often come in native dress and enjoy music and dancing. Men play mah-jongg and other games.

"The need is tremendous," says Martha Peppones, nutrition director for senior services in the county. "For them to get out and spend a day with people who are from their native country and speak their language, and to eat their native food, alleviates a lot of depression." Bilingual social workers also attend the lunches to help immigrants apply for housing, Medicaid, and citizenship.

Within the next three years, Ms. Peppones says, her organization hopes to develop a multicultural senior center where immigrants can meet for programs designed especially for them. These will include classes in citizenship and English as a Second Language. "We want to build a facility that will empower them and give them a place to call their own," she says.

As ethnic meals draw older immigrants out of their homes, benefits ripple out to others as well. "These are the grandparents of school-going and college-going kids," says Ms. Teli in Sharon. "They open up their grandchildren's minds to the fact that other people are interested in learning about their culture and religion."

Americans in the group expand their horizons, too. Phyllis Cohen, who regularly attends the Indian lunch, says, "I'll sit down next to them and they'll share their culture and their recipes. It's interesting to know the ingredients. It's nice to learn."

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