Uncertain age

The African-Caribbean community has always cared for older relatives, but that tradition is now under threat

Traditionally, for people of African-Caribbean origin, the idea of entering a care home is alien. For those born “back home” in the Caribbean, the term conjures up images of alms houses that were strictly the preserve of the poor. Older African-Caribbean women in particular – some of whom will have spent their working lives as care assistants or domestics in “old people’s homes” or nursing older people in British hospitals – wholly resist the prospect. The notion that they will be cared for in old age by their families is generationally ingrained. “We don’t put our people into homes” is a familiar mantra.

Things are beginning to change, however. Previously strong and tight-knit African-Caribbean communities are fragmenting and cultural traditions are being diluted. Patricia Reilly, 69, who worked as a care assistant in the West Midlands for over 20 years, views with trepidation the prospect of being looked after in the British care system. She is confident that her own old age will be comfortable, having been financially prudent, and she is also reassured that at least two of her six children are willing and able to provide long-term care should she need it. However, she fears for other West Indians her age. “Some black people they got nothing in this country and their children don’t give them bread,” she says. “They’ll just go into old people’s homes the same as white people. It’s happening now.”

Dedicated care

Many women of Reilly’s age and background tend to have large extended families. In these families, there are often unspoken agreements among the children about who will look after the parents should they come to need dedicated care. Most accept the responsibility willingly; this is, essentially, how “things are done in the Caribbean”. But with successive generations this sense of intergenerational responsibility appears to be dwindling.

“By the time my kids are my age all the black culture will be out,” says Reilly. “They don’t pass on the culture to their kids. Unless black children take up their own culture there will be none at all, and you got to think what the hell is going to happen.”

Modern black British families of Caribbean heritage have, more than any other black and minority ethnic group, bought into a British way of life. A “2.2 kids” family average, compared with 4.5 for the largest Asian communities, together with an individualistic attitude to health, wealth and prosperity and many interracial marriages, have all served to undermine what was once a culturally tight-knit community.

For young black people born in Britain the rates of intermarriage for both men and women are high: nearly 50% and 35% respectively, compared with a rate of just 7% and 6% for Indian men and women.

National statistics for age distribution according to ethnic identity reveal that, next to white Irish, black Caribbeans have the largest proportion of people aged 65 and over, at 11%. That’s 62,000 of the 566,000 Britons living in the UK who categorised themselves as black Caribbean at the last census count (2001). This reflects the first large-scale migration of non-whites to Britain in the 1950s.

Increasingly, then, in recent years, black Caribbeans in their 30s and 40s have become more conscious of their own parents’ mortality. Relatives and extended family members who had provided the community infrastructure are dying, and with them goes some of the sense of a distinct Caribbean way of living.

Llewellyn Graham, chief executive of the Birmingham-based Nehemiah Housing Association (NHA), specialising in black and minority ethnic (BME) care, says that what is happening to the UK black Caribbean and Asian communities is what happened to the British mainstream community some years ago. The younger generation, with young families and more onerous work responsibilities, haven’t necessarily got the time to provide care. “Social services and local authorities used to say: ‘We don’t need to do anything for Asian people, they all look after themselves.’ But suddenly it’s all broken down,” says Graham.

One of over 60 such specialist associations up and down the country, NHA’s rapid rate of expansion in the past two decades bears testament to the growing need for culturally specific community care for older people. It recognised that isolated black elders living on their own in high-rise blocks or council flats were simply dropping off the social services radar, unable or not wishing to access services that they felt didn’t cater for them.

NHA is now joining forces with United Churches Housing Association. With a joint spread of 500 properties, available to rent or buy, they aim to arrest the trend towards community disintegration by providing schemes that enable residents to stay connected with the family through retirement schemes with a black bias.

Retirement complex

The comedian and actor Lenny Henry has lent his family’s name to one of NHA’s newest developments in his home town, Dudley. Named in honour of his late mother, Winifred, a member of the church that founded NHA, the £4.4m retirement complex was opened by Henry last year. With 38 one-bedroom and two-bedroom flats for a diverse multicultural group, older and frail residents have the luxury of specially designed facilities, including a quiet lounge and events room, dining room, laundry room, library/craft room and a beauty salon.

It also provides a day centre for the older community of Dudley in partnership with the Dudley Befriending Service. It’s a safe and comfortable environment for supported independent living.

Talking of Winifred Henry’s generation, Graham says: “They were the pioneers within our community. Now they are the ones who are retiring and in need of our help.” NHA provides them with their own homes, with their own front door, surrounded by their own things in an environment reminiscent of communal living in the Caribbean.

Graham, now 44, is optimistic about his own future retirement plans and that of black Britons like him. He is hoping to spend time here and in the Caribbean when the time comes. And he is confident that the work of NHA, along with other larger organisations such as Ujima in London, will have demonstrated that many people now don’t see themselves ending up in one room with a single bed and a television. The whole concept, he says, is so outdated that “not even white people want to go there anymore”.

By Mandy Richards – First published in The Guardian Wednesday 23 August 2006 

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