By Ankita Rao

Retiring Desis Begin Making Plans for Life after Work

They arrived in the U.S.—shedding saris for sweat pants and acquiring a taste for pizza.

Now ready to retire, some senior Desis hope to continue balancing both cultures by changing the flavor of retirement communities.

“There are two things, having lived here, that we have,” says Harbans Lal. “We have an independent mind, and we have equity to sustain ourselves.”

As the founder of ASIA-PDX (Association of Senior Indian Americans of Portland), an Oregon-based organization for senior South Asians, Lal recognizes there are many existing facilities for seniors. Currently 1.5 million seniors live in approximately 16,000 nursing homes in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Lal says differences in culture, food and activities make them less attractive to Desis—that’s why he plans to lead his group in creating a South Asian retirement community.

Nita Shah, a member of the group and program director at Microenterprise Services of Oregon, agrees that she would like the comfort of a safety net similar to the one in India.

“I don’t know if we’re glorifying some things [in India], but there is always that attraction of being in a community,” she says.

Shah and Lal are not alone. Iggy Ignatius is the Indian businessman behind Shanti Niketan—a culture-based retirement community for South Asians that will open its first wing on March 1 in Tavares, Florida.

The planning for Shanti Niketan started four years ago with a full year of marketing research across the country to find out what the senior Desi community actually wants.

“People were not interested in high rises; they are tired of cleaning,” Ignatius says. “The food was one of the important aspects.”

Located in the Orlando, Florida area, Shanti Niketan will have a central community center with simple, Indian vegetarian food, and 54 individual one-story units, one of which Ignatius will live in starting March.

Ignatius says weather, proximity to a hospital and grandchild-friendly Disney World helped him decide on the location. While the economic downturn made plans more challenging, Shanti Niketan garnered important support from the Indian community.

But the attraction of recreating an India-like atmosphere has to do with more than daal (lentils) and rice. Retirees and grandparents in India are traditionally an integral part of their children’s households and continue to have lively, busy days.

“Intellectually they are pretty sharp, and they won’t sit idle,” Lal says. He says senior life for South Asians can be more like a career change than retirement.

Nita Shah says while her husband also plans for his retirement to be active, she hopes to have a quieter post-work life while remaining as independent as possible.

“I worked all these years and when I’m ready to give it up, I’m ready,” she says.

Joining the ASIA-PDX group helped her find older South Asian mentors and identify what she will want when she stops working.

One thing Shah knows for sure is she doesn’t want to move in with her children, a decision she thinks is beneficial to the entire family.

“It’s amazing,” she says. "[The people at ASIA-PDX] listen to our wishes and understand our needs and [know] what they can do to help.”

During his research, Ignatius found some seniors preferred to live with or near their children like they would in India. Others were thinking of moving back to India to be part of a community while hiring help for cooking, cleaning and driving.

But he thinks the infrastructure and distance of India make the move impractical.

“[Shanti Niketan] is an answer to that group of people who are looking to move to India,” Ignatius says. It is also a comfortable transition for people who are living alone or looking for support.

More than anything, the efforts to create a comfortable environment for senior South Asians are all about community.

It is about the neighbor’s open, welcoming door and sharing favorite recipes on a kitchen table. It is about putting down the schedules, phones and extra responsibilities to live with a new kind of extended family.

After years of adapting, working and raising families, Desi grandparents, retirees and seniors are looking for a place to put their feet up at last. And lucky for them—the dream is becoming a reality.

Ankita Rao is a freelance writer, yoga enthusiast and Indian food lover based in Washington D.C.