Support for carers in Scotland: the Minority Ethnic Carers of Older People Project in Edinburgh

Carers are all too often left out in the cold, and if you’re from an ethnic minority community matters can be made worse by mainstream services’ preconceptions. Not least of which is the notion that ethnic minorities do not use carers’ centres as they “look after their own”. This has prevented many from getting the support they desperately need.

A pioneering project in Scotland has found itself alone in combating this problem. The Minority Ethnic Carers of Older People Project – Mecopp – has been supporting the Chinese and South Asian communities in the Edinburgh and Lothian region since 1997, and in 2004 it expanded its remit to include carers of adults aged 25 and over. It now helps carers from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, African, African-Caribbean, and Arabic origins and provides essential respite care and advocacy.

Mecopp now has a national development programme manager. Suzanne Munday took up the post last year in addition to her duties as overall manager, and as someone who has been with the project from the very beginning she knows how difficult it is to have the problems faced by ethnic minority carers recognised. The first step was to persuade funders that there was a problem to solve. “At that time I was working in a mainstream carers centre,” she says. “It was very clear that ethnic minority carers were not accessing the services that we had available. We conducted a year’s research and on the basis of that report we secured funding from what was then the Scottish executive.”

Munday found that she had a tough time raising awareness of the issue both within mainstream services and the target communities themselves. “It’s that circular logic – providers were saying that their services were open to everybody and that if people were not coming forward then it’s because they were looking after their own,” she says. “That was one of the major barriers we faced, but also there were barriers within the communities because there was much less of an understanding of informal caring and what an informal carer did.”

Mecopp quickly established itself, but Munday was keen not to replicate existing services. “There were already a number of minority ethnic organisations working with a range of client groups and there were concerns that we would be duplicating the work, but their focus is very much on those receiving care rather than on the family providing care,” she says.

Once awareness of the service grew the floodgates opened. Thanks to a succession of lottery grants, along with ongoing support from the Scottish government, Mecopp went from working with 80 carers to about 360. Munday says: “We were always being approached to support younger people, so now the carer could be any age. We could cover mental health issues, physical disabilities, dementia, alcohol and drug addiction, HIV/Aids – really across the whole board.”

Mecopp now employs 14 staff who are all bilingual, some even trilingual. Munday buys in session workers if a new language barrier pops up and if possible recruits from within that ethnic community itself. She sees the ability to speak to people in their preferred tongue as the key to ensuring they receive better quality care services.

Along with their core services, Mecopp also set up several specialist short-term projects. Thien Tang benefited greatly from their Macmillan Chinese Cancer Linkworker project: “I am Vietnamese and I speak Cantonese as well,” she says. “I used the service for my terminally ill mum and my dad. My parents only speak Cantonese, and that was the only way they could get help. I don’t know the benefits that are available for them but Mecopp knows all sorts of professional people who can help us.”

Access to respite care has relieved some of the stress for Tang, who has her own family commitments, and her father is also much happier at being able to get out more and mix with his community. “I would find life a lot harder if the service didn’t exist,” she says. “There are a lot of Chinese people out there, most doing restaurant work with long hours, their time revolving around kitchens. They don’t know about Mecopp, but a lot of people would benefit.”

Munday hopes that the Mecopp model will become more widely adopted. “As far as we know we are probably the only ethnic minority carers centre in the UK,” she says. “At the very least I would like to see more minority ethnic carer workers placed within mainstream organisations.”


Project manager Suzanne Munday on what works

● Ownership: “Bring community organisations on board from the beginning.”

● Identify the need: “You really do have to have your facts and figures.”

● Raise awareness of what an “informal carer” is within ethnic minority communities.

● Avoid duplication with existing services.

● Flexibility: “We provide a whole range of projects to respond to carers’ needs, such as computing, cookery and stress management.”

● Recruit from within the ethnic minority community if possible.

● A supportive governing board – ideally some members should also be ethnic minority community leaders.

If you are a black or ethnic minority carer and would like to take part in research being conducted by Afiya Trust and National Black Carers and Carers Workers Network, please call 0116 201 3906

This article appeared in the 6 December issue under the headline “Scots pioneers”


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