Taking stock and reflecting on your life are a natural part of
the ageing process. But this can be difficult for ethnic minority
elders in Britain, many of whom started life far away. For some,
growing older brings with it a new kind of homesickness, a longing
for the scenes, sounds and tastes associated with young days. For
others, the British winter increases their longing for the sunshine
they grew up in.
Undertaking reminiscence work in groups of people with similar or
related experiences has been recognised as a helpful way of coming
to terms with these feelings as well as a way of providing mutual
support and understanding.
But it holds particular promise for older people from ethnic
minorities, for whom it can help to create a “community of
experience” with others who have made similar life journeys, so
that people come to see their lives in a broader historical and
social context. People may also wish to pass on the history and
culture of their country of origin to the younger members of their
communities by serving as time-witnesses for their grandchildren
and their friends.
By recording and sharing their own experiences, elders can preserve
and transmit their cultural heritage and help children to take a
positive view of their own background and history. Reminiscence can
therefore be a mutually beneficial activity, increasing the sense
of self-worth of the elders and developing younger people’s sense
Reminiscence work can also stir painful memories, and this is
particularly likely in the case of ethnic minority elders. People
will recall leaving loved ones behind in the country of origin, or
not being able to be there when their parents were ill or dying.
Other sources of pain are the strong differences in attitudes
between elders and their children and grandchildren. The younger
generations have often taken on the attitudes and the value system
of the host culture, including different attitudes to older people,
with implications for the elders.
However, when reminiscence work – and the discussion of present-day
concerns which often accompanies it – happens in a supportive
environment with people who identify with and understand these
experiences, the sessions can provide relief and opportunities for
resolution. Reminiscence can also elicit the issues the older
people have in common with their neighbours, and some of the
special and different stories of their own lives.
Unfortunately, those who work with ethnic minority elders will be
aware of a shortage of suitably specific resource material. Much of
what is available is geared to the needs and lives of white,
British-born elders. To jog the memories of people from radically
different backgrounds, workers often need to find a new set of
“triggers” and relevant activities to stimulate discussion and
As an aid to this work, Age Exchange has published Mapping
Memories: Reminiscence with Ethnic Minority Elders, which
offers care workers ideas for ways to encourage older people to
open up and talk about their past and exchange experiences with
young people. The manual is the result of a year-long series of
interviews with older people from India, the Caribbean, Africa and
the Far East, who settled in Britain in the second half of the 20th
The interviews were conducted in people’s homes and looked at key
stages in their lives, including:
- Their home and family in the country of their birth.
- The circumstances of their growing up.
- Their courting days and marriage.
- Their decision to leave their country of origin and their
journey to Britain.
- Their early years in the new country.
- Their experience of growing old in Britain.
The book has been arranged around these key stages, and people
from the same or related cultures have been grouped together so
that anyone working with elders from the same part of the world
will have several examples on which to draw. The book is filled
with individual stories and accounts (see below) which will provide
triggers for reminiscence and debates.
As the population ages and the incidence of dementia increases,
reminiscence work is likely to become more important. It is hoped
the manual will inspire those working with and caring for older
people from ethnic minorities.
Pam Schweitzer is founder and artistic director of Age
Exchange, a registered charity founded in 1983 which celebrates the
lives of older people through theatre productions, books and
Mapping Memories: Reminiscence with Ethnic
Minority Elders will be launched on 30 March. Enquiries to Age
Exchange at The Reminiscence Centre, 11 Blackheath Village, London
SE3 9LA. Tel: 020 8318 9105 or e-mail
Age Exchange is running a festival of older people’s art and
performance. “The Place Where I Grew Up” runs from 30 March to 1
April at Blackheath Halls, London, with daytime performances and
evening lectures, workshops and films.
“My husband came here in 1961 and I arrived in 1963. He wrote to me
and sent me a ticket for London, so I came. I was 20. I was sad
about leaving my home and family and wasn’t sure whether I would
see them again, especially my parents. I packed my wedding sari,
which I still have. I had never gone much beyond the village. I had
never been on a train. I was dropped at the airport but I had never
been on a plane either. I was scared. My plane was late – we were
told it had broken down and that didn’t help my nerves. The people
on the plane were mostly English. One lady spoke Hindi, so I spoke
a bit with her. I felt a little bit more comfortable after
Ke Wing Pang
“When I arrived in London in 1962, I lived in Earls Court. There
were four of us living in one room. It was £5 for four people,
£1 a person plus £1 for the room. There was a gas ring in
the room, so I could cook soft noodles and vegetables. The people
living in my room were all from Hong Kong. All I remember thinking
at the time was how difficult life would be here and how I could
get a job.”
“I left my home in Nigeria in 1964, and came to London. I am still
here. My colleagues at work introduced me to the idea. We had two
white people from England, who were working with us, and one said
to me, ‘Why not go to England to further your education?’. At this
time I had been made a foreman in charge of technical drawing and I
wasn’t sure I wanted to come. When I decided to come to London, my
mother wasn’t happy at all, especially me being the first-born son.
She reckoned I was going to die, because I might not be able to
feed myself as I never did any cooking at home. But eventually she
said ‘yes’, because she knew I could eat anything to survive.”