Artesia Speaking the Language of Inclusion

Filed under CHAI, Media and Photos, SAN in the News

Artesia’s Pioneer Boulevard bustles with sari stores, jewelry boutiques and Indian restaurants that cater to the thousands of South Asian immigrants who have settled into the neighborhood.

Though many of those immigrants are seniors, few have ever ventured to the nearby Artesia Senior Center, popular among native-born residents and earlier generations of Portuguese and Dutch immigrants.

Language barriers and vegetarian diets have kept some Indian seniors away, while others simply didn’t know about the center and the meals and activities offered there.

Community groups and city leaders are trying to change that with the launch last week of a program called Neighborhood Activities and Nutrition, or Naan, after the Indian bread. They are urging Indian and South Asian seniors to visit the center, hoping to promote cultural exchange, more healthful lifestyles and less isolation.

“This is about physical and emotional health,” said Hamid Khan, who heads the South Asian Network, a community group based in Artesia that helped create Naan. “This is a way to build bridges.”

Farhana Shahid, who works at the network, said she counsels seniors and began noticing last year that many South Asians experienced depression and disease, including high blood pressure and diabetes. So Shahid helped start a walking club and got its members to stroll around the neighborhood and share their stories.

But still, they were reluctant to interact with people from other communities. And they were still eating too many carbohydrates and cooking with too much oil. The network brought a nutritionist on board and began talking to Artesia city officials about attracting the seniors to the community center.

Mayor Phillip Burch, County Supervisor Don Knabe and other municipal leaders welcomed the collaboration, though there were some growing pains and unfamiliarity at the start, Khan said.

Late last year, the Oldtimers Foundation, a community-based organization that provides social services to residents of southeast Los Angeles County, began serving a weekly vegetarian Indian meal, cooked by a local restaurant owner and paid for by the county’s office of aging.

“The South Asian community has grown in this region,” said George Cole, chief executive of the foundation. “We need to do the outreach and we need to include them.”

To celebrate and raise awareness about the nutrition program, seniors performed a Bollywood dance on Wednesday and the community center served rice, lentils, fruit, okra and naan.

One of the dancers, Sudha Mehta, 68, said many elderly men and women stay at home watching television. Mehta, who participates in the walking club and the weekly meal, said she is trying to get others to join her.

“This breaks the isolation,” she said. “If they come out of the home, they enjoy, they can learn, they can exercise.”

Donna Balchas, 80, a regular at the senior center, said she welcomed her Indian neighbors and recently taught one how to play bingo.

“Why not?” she said. “They live here. Artesia is Little India.”

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