Who Cares for the Pioneers? Gilbert and Hortense, Two of Andrea Levy's Small Island Protagonists Would Be Well into Their 70s by Now. after a Lifetime Here, How Would They Now Face the Challenge of Growing Old in a Country That First Shunned Their Arrival? Bafta-Winning Birmingham Author Mandy Richards Reports on the Particular Cultural Perspective That Shapes How Elderly Black Britons Are Cared For

Article excerpt

Byline: Mandy Richards

Traditionally, for people of Afro-Caribbean origin, the concept of a 'care home' is alien. For those born "back home" in the Caribbean the term will conjure images of Alms Houses that were strictly the preserve of the poor. Our mothers, some of whom will have spent their entire working lives as care assistants or domestics in old people's homes or nursing the elderly in British hospitals, wholly resist the prospect. This sentiment is generationally engrained. The effort put in, to raise and educate families with an average of six kids on shift work wages, is the conscious debt Black Brits now benefiting from their parents' struggle owe them.

"We don't put our people into homes," is a familiar mantra. So what do we do? With communities fragmenting and cultural norms fusing, how are Afro-Caribbean communities managing to care for what is proportionally, the largest non-white elderly population in the UK?

Department of Health statistics reveal over 300,000 older people live in residential care in Britain. Of the 62,000 elderly Black Caribbeans in the UK virtually none are in care homes. The assumption that lack of access to care or financial hardship might be the chief considerations here lacks insight.

Social and economic circumstances may have some part to play but the cultural difference that divides views on the responsibility of care for the elderly is what principally separates black from white.

My dad has said: "If I ever get to the state when I can't look after myself, just stick me in a home." Tony Antrobus, aged 43, the son of a miner, says this typifies the unspoken agreement between many white parents and their children. There is a reciprocal understanding that the parents would not want to be a burden on their children. With Caribbean families there's less likely to be a burden of guilt either way. Care homes are simply not an option.

Patricia Reilly, aged 69, worked as a care assistant in the West Midlands for more than 20 years and views the prospect of ever having to be cared for in the British care system with trepidation.

When she came to England in 1956 she earned just pounds 9, sending pounds 2 and 10 shillings of that back home for her daughter and to help her mother. She views the relationships between generations here pessimistically: "These children over here they could be working a million, they don't turn round and ever give their parents anything."

Confident that her own old age will be comfortable, having been financially prudent through the 80s boom and bust, 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. They'll just go into old people's homes the same as white people. It's happening now."

Women of Reilly's age and background tend to have large extended families. In many of these families there are also unspoken agreements amongst the children about who will look after the parents should they come to need dedicated care.

Most accept the responsibility willingly. The connection with how things are done in the Caribbean is still strong but with successive generations, the more fragmented families become, the more this sense of intergenerational responsibility appears to be dwindling.

Modern black British families of Caribbean heritage have, more so than any other Black and minority ethnic groups, bought into a British way of life. A 2.2 kids family average, compared to 4.5 for the largest Asian communities, together with an individualistic attitude to health, wealth and prosperity, as well as the high numbers of interracial marriages have all served to undermine the cohesion of community.

For second generation Caribbeans there's no guarantee that what remains will provide any comfort in old age. …