India – Seeing is Believing!

March 31, 2017

Sensory overload, has that happened to you lately? If it hasn’t I suggest a visit to India!

Earlier this year Katie Sloan, CEO of Leading Age, invited me to speak at the International Conference on Services to the Elderly in Hyderabad, India. I immediately jumped at the chance to participate, both in the context of learning about aging services in another part of the world, and also to visit a magical country so entrenched in our world’s history. And the experience exceeded my expectations on both fronts!

The conference and the people I met there were enlightening on many levels. The leader of the conference, Dr. KR Gangadharan, was the ultimate host, both culturally and professionally. He made all of us from outside India feel at home in his venue and the savvy way that he changed schedules, moved speakers around and choreographed the whole event. He should lead the United Nations!

The conference touched on issues that impact the world: dementia, disparate incomes and its impact on health services, isolation, funding. The issues, and the solutions, obviously had an Indian flavor, but the impact of these issues sting worldwide. Robust discussions and passionate ideas flowed freely through the exchanges. It was a delight to have so many college students in attendance. Dr. Ganga did an excellent job of energizing passionate younger people to attend. It was also interesting to see the role technology is playing throughout the world in looking at solutions to benefit older adults.

I delivered a presentation on the positive impact that person-centered technology can have as people age, particularly individuals with dementia. This is a phenomena that iN2L has seen dramatically since our inception in 1999. It was also delightful in my presentation to honor two colleagues and friends of mine, the brilliant researcher from Chicago, Vivian Tellis-Nayak and Bhakti Gosalia, executive director at Grandview Terrace in Arizona. Their work has inspired me over the years. It was a privilege to honor them in their own homeland.

My trip was a great experience. I loved the conference and learned from experts around the globe. But a few weeks later, as I recap my experiences, it was nothing compared to the experience that came from immersing myself for a few short days into the Hyderabad culture – now that was a once in a lifetime experience! The conference venue where I stayed was a beautiful luxury hotel in the middle of the city, but it was clear staying inside the walls of that lush oasis would not give me much of a flavor of the city or the country. So, thirty minutes after I checked in I reverse engineered my way through all of the security checkpoints and found myself alone, surrounded by the intensity of a city that radiated energy like a fireball, thousands of pieces of movement all coming at me at once from every direction.

My first encounter was with the auto rickshaw, a souped up family of golf carts that make up the majority of the transportation in the city. Half an hour on one of these babies was worth the price of admission alone. You have to ride one of these things to relate to the experience, but put on your imagination hat and picture yourself travelling on a golf cart, intermittently moving from a standing stop to 40 mph and back while on this whiplash of speed you’re navigating your way through other taxis, buses, pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, trucks and wayward cattle. You’re literally within inches of other people as you weave in and out, and the other people you see come from all over the world, every race, creed, color, size, shape, and age. I represented the late middle age, tall, lanky white America and didn’t see a lot of “me” in the streets.

The taxi driver adopted me for the day. I was able to visit forts and tombs hundreds and hundreds of years old, Buddha statues and city markets. My driver knew I was a bit of a tourist and he took advantage of my willing naïveté and got a great tip out of it. It was worth the trade off. I loved having him take me around. It was, as I said before, sensory overload. The sights, the sounds, the smells are so difficult to convey as I click away writing this, but I can close my eyes and be back there in my mind. Traffic lights were mere speed bumps on the experience. They were casually ignored by everyone navigating through the streets. It was an economic dichotomy. You can see glamorous hotels and restaurants within yards of people clearly struggling to survive. It was fascinating sociologically. In my four short days over there I took daily trips in taxis and what struck me by the last day was how “safe” I felt amidst the insanity. I did not see one accident in my trip, a fact I can’t say that in my usual treks across the US, as magnificent open highways lend themselves to multiple accidents on a daily basis.

It was four short days, but hundreds of lifelong memories. Through my friend Mary Tellis-Nayak, I was able to visit the Sisters of the Poor where I met an enchanting group of women taking on the world’s problems without complaint, one rupee at a time. I convinced three young gentlemen as they left a nightclub in downtown Hyderabad and talked them into Skyping some residents at a Front Porch community in California. I dined on spectacular local food and met people speaking broken English who all exuded such passion and excitement to learn about the US. I shopped, breathed the air and inhaled the energy of an exquisite culture.

Thank you, Katie, for suggesting me as a speaker. Thank you, Dr. Ganga, for your hospitality. Most of all, thank you, India, for opening your sights and sounds to a stranger who has never seen anything like it before. I’m still reeling with a smile on my face, looking for an excuse to come back.