Who Will Care For The Parents Of Expat Indians?
BANGALORE, INDIA – Three generations live under the same roof in this bustling home: two rambunctious kids, their weary parents and an 80-year-old grandfather.
The grandfather, Raj Krishnamurthy, is an eager host, and keeps offering me Indian snacks as we talk on the couch. He serves up a homemade yogurt drink specially made today for a Hindu holiday. Then he leans closer, as if to tell a secret.
“Here in Indian custom, a father brings up his son with the hope that the son will care for him at a later date,” he says. “That is the Indian culture.”
His son, Sanjay, says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He’s kind of been there for me for everything,” Sanjay says. “I don’t see it as duty. I just feel I don’t have something if he’s not around.”
It could have gone differently for the Krishnamurthy family. Sanjay moved from India to the U.S. in 1995. He got a business degree at Duke University, then he says things just “fell into place.”
Four years ago, Sanjay and his young family lived a comfortable life in Redmond, near Seattle, where Sanjay worked as a marketing manager at Microsoft. But Sanjay wanted to be closer to his father, so they moved back to India. His father protested. He believes Sanjay could have a better life in the U.S.
In Indian culture, aging parents traditionally live with their children. But how do these families manage when adult children and aging parents live on opposite sides of the world? That’s a struggle many face here in Washington, one of the fastest growing areas for Indian immigrants.
It’s also why retirement communities that cater to globalized families are on the rise in India, especially in big cities that make up India’s Silicon Valley and where careers lead young professionals overseas. After China, India has the second largest diaspora in the world, with more than 25 million Indians living outside their native country.
For Sanjay, returning to India was the right choice. And Bangalore is a booming tech town of its own, which made the professional transition easier.
Raj did try living in Redmond for a while. But it was tough to get around on his own. He got bored, and he missed his familiar Indian lifestyle.
With a wink, Raj says he’s not giving up hope that his son will, eventually, head back.
“I’d be very happy if he goes to United States after I kick the bucket,” he says. That gives Sanjay and his wife, Divya, a good laugh.
Sanjay and Raj also butt heads about old age homes. Sanjay’s father wants to give it a try. He likes the idea of being around more people his own age.
But Sanjay jokes that’ll happen over his own dead body. To him, old age homes are not the Indian way.
“Ma-ha-de-van.” The old man I meet at a retirement community sounds out his name for me. He’s 82 and neatly dressed in slacks and a plaid shirt.
I repeat it back, trying not to stumble over the unfamiliar language.
Mahadevan’s thin face lights up as I get his name right.
He lives in a complex of senior living apartments on the outskirts of Chennai, another huge Indian city. He moved here a few years ago after his wife passed away. His only son lives in Kirkland, a Seattle suburb.
Mahadevan points us toward a small building called the canteen, where it’s time for tea. He signals to the server, who promptly sets out our milky, steaming-hot chai.
Mahadevan expertly pours the hot tea between two silver dishes to cool it as he reminisces about a previous visit to the Northwest.
“And I went to Canada. There’s a town there in the mountains … Ah yes, Whistler,” he says.
In Kirkland, he took long walks and enjoyed weekends with his son’s family.
“It’s nice for vacation,” he says. “But India is home.”
Most of the 300 or so residents here live independently. The staff helps them out with laundry, meals and trips to town.
Mahadevan says most residents have children living outside of India, including a gentleman named Bala we met outside the dining hall. His son and daughter-in-law moved to Edmonton, Canada.
“They’ve all run away,” Bala says with a laugh.
Bala also has no interest in living outside of India. Or to follow Indian tradition and move in with relatives. He likes it here.
“We have our own jolly good life,” he says. “We have our hobbies. We have our own understanding. We have our own friends.”
In his apartment, Mahadevan spends mornings reading six newspapers and copying notes into his separate journals for health, transportation and other topics.
Occasionally, Mahadevan visits nearby relatives. He talks with his son Ganesh often. Ganesh helps cover costs here – about $200 a month.
They’re used to this arrangement. Ganesh has lived in the U.S. for nearly 30 years. Mahadevan misses his son, but he says he has become used to the distance.
Times change, he says. It’s natural. “Some people will not accept this fact, but this is actual fact.”
Mahadevan’s sandals flap on the walkway as we head to the Hindu temple. He comes here twice a day.
Inside, a priest dabs our foreheads with ash, then Mahadevan quietly sings along. Singing, it turns out, is a new hobby he’s discovered here.
Back in Bangalore, Roshan Jacob runs an in-home health care service for seniors, many whose children live abroad.
“I can provide nursing services, live-in nurses, physical therapy, daily, weekly, monthly visits,” Jacob says. “Any procedure I can do in the house. You name anything under the sun, medical, and I can do it in the house. OK?”
He also sends frequent updates to the children abroad. It’s a service that offers a sort of middle ground between retirement homes and kids moving back in.
Jacob and his partner Soumya Nair started this business, advantAGE Seniors, in 2001. It now employs about 500 caregivers on staff.
He firmly believes seniors are better off in their own homes, where they can keep up with their friends and hobbies. It’s an idea, and business model, that’s gaining traction across India. A major consulting firm recently estimated this industry is growing nearly 20 percent a year.
Still, Jacob says, this approach can be a tough sell to children thousands of miles away. Distance can sometimes weaken family bonds.
“Most of the children – don’t take this as negative; I’m sharing my experience with you – they’re simply not bothered,” he says.
Jacob’s price for a live-in caregiver starts at $200 a month. He says some of the children, who often work for multinational companies, balk at the cost.
“They’re under the impression that India is still cheap,” Jacob says. “The care-giving task is not cheap. You have to pay more to get this quality, but children are not interested in that.”
He acknowledges that senior living facilities in India are improving, and some are top notch. But like many Indians, it’s tough for him to shake an old social stigma about these places.
“Dumping your mother,” he says. “The word is dumping. Other neighbors or relatives will say, ‘Oh, he dumped his mother in an old age home.’”
Across town at Sanjay’s multi-generational house, the kids wind down for bed. Grandfather and granddaughter tuck in on the couch.
Sanjay believes this arrangement, in this lively household, keeps his dad active and healthy. At a retirement home, Sanjay worries his father would watch too much TV and languish.
I ask him whether he thinks this is the best arrangement for his father.
“I think it’s the best arrangement for me,” he says with a grin.
Like many families, they’ll likely dance around this conversation for years.
Editor’s note: In the months since KUOW reporter Liz Jones returned from her reporting trip to India, Mahadevan, 82, of tea-pouring and singing prowess, has died. His family said he was grateful to share his story with KUOW.