Elderly Immigrants Flow into Calif.

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Most elderly immigrants are brought to the U.S. by sons and daughters living in America already. Many say they feel bewildered and depressed after coming to America, and so a group of "community ambassadors" in Fremont, Ca., is trying to help them cope.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Most immigrants to this country are young and of working age. But in recent years, more elderly immigrants in their 60s, 70s, and even older have been coming to the U.S. More than 100,000 elderly immigrants come here each year, and for many of them, life hasn't turned out the way they had hoped. Reporter Lonny Shavelson brings us this story about a new program in Freemont, California designed to help elderly immigrants adjust to life in the U.S.

LONNY SHAVELSON: In a tiny walk-up apartment crowded with Indian immigrants, 75-year-old Hardat Singh(ph) adjusts the volume of the Sikh prayer that plays confidently from a boom box. He says he moved to the U.S. to be with his daughter and her family.

Mr. HARDAT SINGH: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KASHMIR SHAHI (Translator): So his daughter actually invited him and petitioned for him to come over here so they will stay together as a family.

SHAVELSON: But what Singh found here is a family under stress. His daughter and her husband work the night shift in a medical supply factory. His adolescent grandchildren live a lifestyle he describes kindly as unfamiliar. There wasn't enough room in the house. Singh had to move to this crowded apartment across town.

Mr. SINGH: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SHAHI: He said his feelings were very hurt, but you know, after some time you adjust with the time.

SHAVELSON: The translator is Kashmir Shahi(ph), a 42-year-old software engineer from India's Punjab. He's one of 30 volunteers recently trained by the city of Fremont to work with elderly immigrants.

Mr. SHAHI: I feel like, you know, it was really a shame for the family that promised them, and they promised - and the system here, like, they will take care of them, and they are not doing that.

SHAVELSON: It's not neglect, says Mary Anne Mendall, Fremont's administrator of Aging and Family Services, but the reality of life in the United States. Parents and grandparents who come here expecting to join an extended family, like in the old country, can be bewildered by what they find.

Ms. MARY ANNE MENDALL (Administrator): Husband and wife are working. Children are in school. The neighborhood's deserted. They're home alone.

SHAVELSON: Mendall says the desperate situation of many senior immigrants became clear to her at a meeting last year.

Ms. MENDALL: And it was very quiet, and then one senior spoke up and said we feel like we are parasites on our children; we depend upon them for money, for shelter, and for socialization. And we're all depressed.

SHAVELSON: So Fremont started the community ambassador program for seniors and held 14 focus groups in nine languages to find out what elderly immigrants need to adjust to life here. At a meeting at a Sikh temple, the seniors had numerous questions.

Unidentified Speaker #1: Do you have any facility or subsidy for learning driving for the seniors?

Unidentified Speaker #2: Regarding the survivor benefit, how many years we should have contributed or worked in this country?

Unidentified Speaker #3: Is any cash aid or grant under this program?

SHAVELSON: The ambassadors now help the elderly immigrants with housing, medical care, legal aid, family counseling, and simple but crucial skills like getting around on buses. They say all of that is helping decrease the seniors' isolation and depression. More difficult to remedy, though, is the fact that in the United States the larger society does not value being old. Marita Grudzen, deputy director of Stanford's Geriatric Education Center, explains.

Ms. MARITA GRUDZEN (Stanford Geriatric Education Center): They go out and they're not respected or welcomed in the way they were in their country, and so it's a hundred little ways where they experience a great loss.

SHAVELSON: Before he left India, Hardat Singh was fully retired after a long military career. Now in the crowded apartment here, at 75 he's preparing to leave for the job he needs to get by - the graveyard shift at a local gas station.

Shahi is also here. He has enrolled Singh in Medicare, put him in touch with other senior Indian immigrants, and he's working on getting him less crowded housing. But Shahi says his very presence as an ambassador from Fremont to the seniors has helped Singh the most, showing that he is valued here in the U.S.

Mr. SHAHI: In the real sense, I think I offered him a comfort where he can enjoy his life.

SHAVELSON: For NPR News, I'm Lonnie Shavelson.

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