Three years ago, Tower Hamlets Council hit the headlines of some of the national newspapers for taking the decision to build a care home that would cater largely, but not exclusively, for the cultural needs of the large Muslim community in the borough. The story was covered aggressively and negatively by the tabloid press who said the move ran counter to multi-culturalism.
“We put up a sign at the site saying this is a new centre that’s being built to meet the needs of Bangladeshi older people,” explains Wilson. “A local person then complained to the local paper saying it excluded other groups. The story then appeared in the Evening Standard and was picked up by a number of nationals and by the time the Daily Star reported it the story had been distorted to ‘council to build housing block for Bangladeshis only’.”
The scandal left the council feeling battered but adamant it was doing the right thing with its Sonali Gardens project.
“With hindsight if I was going to put up a sign about meeting the needs of a specific cultural group I’d be very careful with the wording of it and might not even mention it at all so that you don’t give people a bullet to fire back at you. I’d wait until it is set up and then explain face-to-face to people that it isn’t excluding them,” he added.
Wilson says that most people are receptive to the idea of culturally sensitive services if you explain the benefits it offers to the service user.
“You have to take the view of the person that would benefit from spending some of their time at an older people’s day centre. If you’re a person that grew up in England, ate English food and grew up in the culture when you go to your day centre you’d expect it to be similar to the rest of the life you’d led. If Buddhists ran it and it served vegetarian brown rice people would say it’s not what you’d expect. It should continue on from their earlier life,” he says.
In an area where roughly half the population are Muslims of Bangladeshi origin, it is inevitable that a large proportion of the existing and future older generations will have different requirements of social services.
“If you want customers to feel like they are getting a quality service that best suits their needs you ask them what they want. In our case they told us they wanted facilities to pray, ablutions and Halal food. If you offer that to people they will be happier than providing one size fits all.”
But Wilson says how councils deliver culturally sensitive services are largely dictated by the numbers of people they need to cater for. For example, Tower Hamlets commissions services from local voluntary groups for its smaller Vietnamese, Chinese and Jewish communities.
“If you have only one person from a particular culture you have to come up with another way of meeting their needs such as an individually tailored package of care. There has to be a critical mass of service user need before you can go down the route of setting up a dedicated service,” he adds.
And Wilson explains that culturally sensitive services need to evolve like any other service to keep pace with the changing needs of clients.
“When we get to the point that most of the elderly population were born in the UK, used to the English way of life and spoke good English my guess is that they will choose something different to what we provide at the moment. Service users need to be the arbiters of that.”
- DO: be creative. If you can’t afford to meet the needs of a very small minority group through traditional means, then try and meet them through other creative ways.
- DON’T: be fazed by hostile or racist interpretation of what you’re doing. Hold your ground and keep explaining.