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As Austin's South Asian Community Swells, Seniors Seek More Interaction

Veronica Zaragovia/KUT
The growing community of South Asian seniors in Austin are pushing for more opportunities to cook and eat together as their numbers swell.

South Asian Indians make up the largest portion of Asian Americans in Austin, and within that group, seniors need meals and social interaction as much as anyone else. Many are isolated at home, however, and say free meal delivery programs don’t follow dietary restrictions.

As a result, a growing group of seniors of South Asian descent want a community kitchen to help meet their needs.

About once a month, a number of them get together for a meal. They like to eat food they’ve been eating since their youth in India. Kusum Agarwal says there's one main reason why other Asian food isn’t an option.

"More spices," Agarwal says. "We put more spices in our food and we like that food so much. So without spices we can’t eat. Boiled food we are not able to eat."

Earlier this week, a van brought them to Biryani Pot, a restaurant tucked in a shopping plaza in northwest Austin. Roughly 20 seniors came to see if this place had good enough food.

"There should be some curry, there should be some yogurt, there should be some kind of fruit, there should be a little bit of vegetables," says Hari Agrawal about what specifically makes a good meal. "If not chapati, a variety of breads."

One person in particular has been pushing to get a suitable kitchen for seniors to cook meals together at the Asian American Resource Center -- Shubhada Saxena, the founder and current president of SAIVA, or South Asians International Volunteer Association.

Saxena says the population of Indian seniors in Austin is growing.

"It is one of the fastest growing populations – the immigrant seniors, late stage immigrant seniors, actually," she says.

Ryan Robinson, Austin’s demographer, says South Asian Indians make up the largest component of all Asians in Austin, and it’s the fastest-growing segment of Austin’s Asian community.

"It has been a surprise for me as a demographer to see this real surge," he says.

For a while they were eating meals together at the Austin Hindu Temple, but the kitchen there is under construction.

Money from the Austin city budget has been set aside to upgrade a kitchen at the Asian American Resource Center that currently doesn’t meet health department requirements.  Construction will most likely happen next year.

"We’re waiting for that to happen, so there will be a kitchen available," Saxena says. "Unfortunately, the Asian American Resource Center is located in a part of town where Asian Americans don’t live, and the transport service that’s currently available to that agency is just one van, and they do only congregate pick ups."

Saxena says when seniors can’t get together with other seniors who speak the same language, wear the same clothes and eat similar food, then their quality of life suffers.

"There’s no meaningful purpose left in life and it leads to a lot of depression, and loneliness because you don’t connect with other people," she says.

Hari Agrawal echoes that sentiment back at the restaurant.

"This promotes friendship," he says. "People meet here, we talk to each other, we interact with each other. Because for people who are 60 plus...99 percent don’t drive, and that’s a great restraint for people going from one house to another house,"

Saxena says her group has applied for a grant from Capital Metro to get more vans and expanded transportation services for the seniors it serves.

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