Former suburban neuroscientist helps fellow South Asians navigate retirement
After working nearly 35 years as a neuroscientist, Talat Khan faced the biggest challenge of her life: navigating retirement.
"I didn't have any clue. I was a scientist in the lab," said Khan, of Darien, who immigrated from Hyderabad, India, in the late 1960s as a college student.
It was a dilemma facing many of her South Asian peers living in the suburbs who felt isolated and lonely and didn't know what to do in retirement, said Khan, now in her 70s.
So she started a referral and consultation service for South Asian seniors and volunteered as a translator with DuPage County Senior Services.
"Whenever there were South Asians speaking Hindi/Urdu, they would call me," she said.
Khan soon realized the older adults she visited were suffering from depression and anxiety due to isolation from their communities, so much so they wouldn't let her leave their homes out of a yearning for fellowship. "I felt that they need some kind of companionship," she said.
It led Khan to found the not-for-profit American Association of Retired Asians, or AARA, which organizes an older adult congregate meal program for South Asian seniors at restaurants in Hanover Park, Naperville and Villa Park.
"We started something like quarterly get-togethers," said Khan, who leads as executive director of the all-volunteer organization that runs mostly through donations. "It was social as well as informative."
Khan would bring in speakers to address topics, such as aging in America, Medicare and other senior services.
South Asian seniors are underserved when it comes to social services due to various cultural, dietary and linguistic barriers preventing access to public and private resources. AARA steps in to provide culturally and linguistically compatible services or assistance to seniors to access available public resources and private service providers.
"The problem with our community is they are not aware of all these services," Khan said. "People don't come out to the main programs which are offered by the state or the county because of the language. They would rather stay home than go somewhere where they don't have familiar faces and don't understand what they are talking about. We provide them with (an) environment where they are comfortable."
In 2011, AARA opened a small center in Carol Stream where the group would host socialization events and a weekly luncheon.
"(That program) has grown so much that we cannot accommodate everybody in our center," Khan said. "We started having a fundraiser because we needed more services for (South Asian seniors) than what we were offering."
AARA has worked with AgeOptions -- the suburban Cook County branch of the Area Agency on Aging -- to secure grant funding for its meal program, which now runs five days a week at four suburban eateries -- Faizaan's Tasty Burgers & Grill in Hanover Park, Sara's Grill and Absolute BBQ in Naperville, and Tandoori Restaurant in Villa Park. The program now serves roughly 250 to 300 people weekly.
"We are still looking for some funding from the government and township," Khan said. "Mainly we are working for donations from within our community."
Through AgeOptions, Khan also helped launch a Memory Cafe at Mumbai Cafe in Hoffman Estates to help South Asians with Alzheimer's, dementia and other diseases involving memory loss come together each month.
"We provide the social network for them," Khan said.
In addition, she worked with Hanover Township to establish a Women's Empowerment Group creating a network of women helping each other with financial literacy, coping with grief and becoming independent.
AARA also provides other services, such as stress management through yoga and meditation every other Saturday at Hanover Township, Medicaid/Medicare counseling through the Illinois Department on Aging's Senior Health Insurance Program, immigration counseling, and a bridge group every Saturday at its Carol Stream center.
The center will be relocating to Bolingbrook this month. Most of AARA's roughly 20 volunteers are retired South Asians, a few are young mothers from the community, and a handful are youths.
Khan hopes to start offering digital literacy for South Asian seniors at the Bolingbrook center and tackle the next big issue for the community -- educating people about the 2020 Census.
"The community is underrepresented in the census because they don't see the importance of (it)," Khan said. "People don't realize that you have to be counted to get the services."