Feeling Isolated, older Tibetans seek space of their own

New York City: For 82-year-old Sonam Choedon, life every day is almost the same routine at her daughter’s home in Woodside, Queens. She gets up around eight in the morning and does her regular prayers. With rosary in one hand and a prayer wheel in the other, she begins her day by reciting a Buddhist mantra of compassion. She says it keeps her peaceful and calm.

For Choedon spending hours in Buddhist prayers has become a daily routine.

“In our Tibetan Buddhist culture, reciting Mani (mantra of compassion) can benefit all sentient beings and not just oneself,” Choedon explains in Tibetan. “It is a belief that merit of reciting Mani is the only thing we can take along with us after we leave this world.”

But behind this tranquil-sounding poise, Choedon has been struggling to find joy out of her regular prayers.

Like many older immigrants, Choedon dreamed of reuniting with her daughters who were living in the United States. Since arriving in the U.S. legally 10 years ago from Nepal, she began to realize that a small and scattered Tibetan population in an economically driven, busy country would mean depriving her of the much-needed social and cultural life.

Besides her regular prayers, the only other thing Choedon has managed to do on her own without relying on family members in all these years is take a short walk to a public park two blocks away from her home on 45th Street and 48th Avenue in Woodside. Since coming to New York, Choedon says, she has never traveled alone beyond the park.

“At this age and living in a foreign land where I cannot speak the language, doing prayers and going to the park are the only things I am good at doing by myself,” she says in Tibetan. “After being in this country for over 10 years now, I still don’t know anything about American life.”

Kunga Thinley, president of The Tibetan Community of New Jersey and New York, agrees that many older Tibetans in the city who moved to the U.S. in later part of their life find it difficult to learn and adjust to the new living environment. This leaves them with little choice to participate in social activities outside of their family.

“Right now many of them end up staying home alone when their family members are busy with their work, so this issue facing our older members in our community has been raised regularly,” Thinley says, adding that the community is in the process of finding a meaningful solution to the isolation facing older Tibetans.

The issues are not unique to the Tibetan community.

Older immigrants, especially those with limited or no English language proficiency, are less likely to interact with others, but rely more on family and organizations within their ethnic communities, according to a study conducted in 2008 by Dr Sadhna Diwan, director of the Center for Healthy Aging in Multicultural Populations at San Jose State University.

Besides the loss of their independence when they arrive in the U.S., they face harder time than younger immigrants assimilating to a new culture, customs and language. And they often don’t have friends or a platform to create a social network. Diwan says these issues are common among “late-life immigrants,” who are “generally older people who come to the U.S. to join their adult children.”

Diwan says the language barrier, which she terms Limited English Proficiency (LEP), results in “social isolation not only from mainstream but also from others in their own community as LEP seniors are not comfortable taking public transportation, going out on their own, and hence become quite dependent on their children and grandchildren.”

“Almost everyone who immigrates later in life will have a greater challenge in terms of adapting to new environments, but these issues are compounded by LEP which impacts all aspects of their lives,” says Diwan.

Born in Tibet, in its capital city of Lhasa, in 1930, Choedon escaped to Nepal in 1980 to avoid “political, cultural and religious oppression” under the Chinese rule. In Nepal, she struggled to live in a closely-knit community of Tibetans.

Choedon first came to the U.S. in 2001 at the age of 72 to live in Seattle with her eldest daughter. Feeling isolated, with few Tibetans to be seen around and only her daughter to live with, Choedon moved to New York to live with her second daughter, who shared her house with her husband and two of their adult children. Choedon thought more Tibetans in New York would mean less isolation and more social and cultural life outside of her home. But little changed.

Once in New York, the subways were too complicated for her to travel around. Although there are more Tibetans in the city, the lack of a traditional senior center meant almost the same old thing.

Choedon’s daughter Dawa Bhuti and her granddaughter Dolma Choezom said they looked for a senior center in their neighborhood to see if she could join.

“But the centers have only language assistance for Chinese or Spanish. And since my grandmother cannot speak English or any of these languages, she doesn’t want to go,” says Choezom, who is a nursing student and gained experience volunteering at senior centers as part of her program.

Caryn B. Resnick, deputy commissioner at the New York City Department for the Aging, says her department has “very little if any data on the older Tibetans population and the services for them.”

Choedon agrees that the idea of joining one of the many senior citizens in the city to counter loneliness did not interest her because of her language barrier.

“These issues are not so acute among people who can communicate in English — but even there, older people often become homebound and dependent because of lack of transportation as well as self-confidence in navigating suburbia,” Diwan said.

Another Tibetan immigrant, Tsering Dolma, 72, who lives with her family in Woodside, shares almost the same experience. Like Choedon, Dolma doesn’t speak English. She barely manages to travel as far as Jackson Heights, four stops from her house on 45th Street in Woodside, Queens, to attend one of the regular prayer sessions organized by Tibetan community members.

Dolma enthusiastically explains how she takes the 7 train to Jackson Heights and takes the same train back home. Besides that, Dolma says she has never traveled elsewhere on her own.

Unable to move around and find benefits of their own, many older immigrants like Choedon and Dolma rely entirely on family members for help. When the family members are not around, they end up waiting helplessly for them.

Both Choedon and Dolma say they are looking for the company of other Tibetans where they can speak the same language and share the same cultural backgrounds.

For now the best bet for the older Tibetans is to pin their hope on a newly purchased Tibetan Community Center, says Choedon’s son-in-law Thupten Dhargay. He says his family contributed $500 to help realize the much-awaited community center. Through contribution from its members and well wishers, the community just recently managed to buy an old factory complex located in Woodside, Queens, to turn it into a community center.

The community is now in a legal process for the renovation of the center.

Once completed, Thinley says, the center will have multi-faceted sections for a number of educational, cultural and spiritual activities designed to help both young and old. “The center, once completed, will be a center of activities for Tibetans to come together and keep the community more culturally intact,” he adds.

“We hope the center will provide a venue for older people to come together and spend their time interacting and doing activities that interest them,” Thinley said, adding that the board members are still discussing the specific details of the bigger plans.

According to him, it will at least take more than a year before the center will be fully ready.

Until then life for many older Tibetans will follow the same pattern – either visit their favorite park or spend time home holding prayers with the motivation to help all sentient beings.