Illustration by Naina Hussain.
This story was originally published in Tostada Magazine.
Pre-pandemic, most of Shelly Begum’s* time was dedicated to tending to the needs of three generations of family members.
Helping her adult children with dropping off and picking up her grandchildren at school near her home in Sterling Heights; preparing meals, doing the grocery shopping for her 85-year-old mother who lives in Hamtramck. Her brother, also in Hamtramck, would do his part by taking their mom to doctors’ appointments, translating what the doctors would say into Bangla, and filling prescriptions at a nearby pharmacy.
In Bangladeshi culture, a typical household is made up of several generations under one roof, creating a crucial and sustained lifeline of support.
Everyone in the household helps out where they can: children and grandchildren often interpret information from English to Bangla, administer medication to grandparents, prepare meals and do laundry for the entire household, and assist with bathing when a relative is no longer able to do it themselves. While older parents tend to live primarily with a son (usually the eldest), daughters and daughters-in-law also play an instrumental part in caregiving.
At 62 years old, Begum, like many other Bangladeshi women, has to balance being both caretaker for her family and facing the prospect that it won’t be long before she will be the one in need of care.
When the pandemic hit, that network of support was turned on its head when social distancing and stay-home orders made caring for loved ones in-person became an untenable task.
Begum no longer picked up the grandkids at school as they were stuck at home to do distance learning from tablets. Instead of taking her mother to the supermarket, she now had to drop off the groceries on her mother’s front porch and made wellness calls virtually every day.
“We are not seeing people,” she says.
Metro Detroit is home to the third-largest Bangladeshi-American community in the United States. According to data analysis published in 2017 by the Pew Research Center, Detroit’s Bangladeshi population was 10,000. Rebeka Islam, executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote-Michigan a nonpartisan civic engagement organization, says the population size is not well documented but estimates the number in Michigan at anywhere between 30,000-100,000. Most are concentrated in Hamtramck, a city of 2 square miles that is the most densely populated city in Michigan. That makes social distancing difficult, and Hamtramck has one of the highest of confirmed COVID-19 cases — 2,721 — of any city in Wayne County, according to county data.
Complicating matters, much of the information about preventing the spread of COVID-19 — from proper handwashing, social distancing, recognizing the symptoms, and stay-home orders — is not published in Bangla, further putting families at risk of infection.
Dr. Mohammad Kang is a geriatrician at Detroit Medical Center, who regularly sees Bangladeshi patients during hospital rounds. He says this intergenerational support system is important in relaying a patient’s history to English-speaking healthcare providers, understanding instructions, and helping to develop a plan of care.
“In the Bengali families the children and other family members are very instrumental in the care of the older adult,” he says.
Without that in-person connection, Dr. Kang says he’s observed misinformation being shared online about the virus and vaccines, as well as feelings of anxiety and isolation, all of which he worries are causing a potential mental health crisis in the community that he likens to a “second pandemic.”
“The pandemic has not been kind to our older adults as many over the course of the last year have become very feeble and as a state very anxious or depressed,” he says.
The pandemic has upended the daily routine of Begum’s mother, Moklisina.
Each morning, Moklisina began rigorously monitoring Bangla and Urdu news channels to learn the latest pandemic updates. She made daily rounds of phone calls to disseminate information with her kids, son-in-law, or grandchildren.
“I was worried,” says Moklisina, who lives with her 60-year-old son, his wife, and kids in Hamtramck.
She’s worried because she’s lost relatives to the virus both in the United States and in Bangladesh.
Moklisina isn’t just worried about her wellbeing. She’s one of many older Bangladeshi women in the community who’ve struggled with an information gap. With a dearth of credible news available stateside published in Bangla and languages other than English, Bangladeshi-Americans must rely on their own research and word-of-mouth from family members to keep their community safe.
Dr. Kang worries that important facts are often lost in translation when information is spread in this way.
“There are of course limitations to the translating as well as understanding the medical care to best translate for the patient. That is why it is best to either use a service or a device of some sort to help augment what the family is translating so the best understanding possible may be obtained,” he says.
Moklisina and her family moved from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Hamtramck in 1989 with her husband and five kids. Her husband previously worked for the Bangladeshi Shipping Corporation, and later as a Bangladesh Air Force technician who fixed jets. They moved to the U.S. and soon after retired.
Begum says that because she comes from a military family both of her parents maintained an active healthy lifestyle. They also enjoyed learning new things.
She would come home to find her mom watching Indian or Pakistani cooking shows, her father jotting down ingredients, and then going out to fetch the ingredients from the grocery store. Her father continued driving up to the age of 91. He passed away in June 2019.
Begum says her mom used to feed everyone.
“I used to go to her house when my kids were little; my mom or dad would make fresh forotas (Bangladeshi flat bread), eggs and salad. My eyes would light up from the smell. When my dad was around he would help out too,” she says.
Begum says her mom still wants to do a lot — she also enjoys sewing, knitting, embroidery, reading, home decor, and exercise — but isn’t always able to maintain an active lifestyle because she has arthritis.
“She was very active. She can’t sit still. Whatever she can manage without putting too much pressure on her leg” she does it, Begum says.
Since the pandemic, that active lifestyle has slowed even more.
Moklisina is able to cook simple meals but Begum sometimes prepares meals for her and either drops them off or prepares ingredients for her mother to cook throughout the week. She also comes over to help with cleaning.
Begum and Moklisina speak daily on the phone. Begum’s brother takes their mother to all doctor’s appointments and translates what the doctor says. He recently took her to get her COVID-19 vaccine at Detroit Medical Center. Her first dose was in February and her second dose in March.
Every other week, Moklisina stays over at Begum’s house in Sterling Heights for several days at a time. Begum is extra careful not to interact much with others outside of her immediate family to lessen her exposure to the virus. With all of that unverified information floating around social media networks, the family is cautious not to overshare posts with her mother.
While she’s avoided being infected, the shift away from interacting with family members and friends in person has weighed heavily on her mental health.
“(My mom) gets anxious when she hears about people getting really sick… (But) if we don’t tell her she will be upset not hearing about it. Afterward, she says, ‘It’s Allah’s (God’s) will,’” says Begum.
More than anything, both mother and daughter miss being surrounded by family.
“I am very upset about this,” Moklisina says.
Editor’s Note: We have changed Shelly Begum’s name for this story to protect her family’s identity in the Bangladeshi community.
Illustration by Naina Hussain. Find more of her work on Instagram by clicking here.
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations, and the Silver Century Foundation.
This story was also produced through a collaboration with the New York & Michigan Solutions Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations and universities dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about successful responses to social problems. The group is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.