Involuntary action

Strong family ties in many minority ethnic
communities mean that relatives often end up doing the work that
should be provided by social services. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s
family is a case in point.

I didn’t realise this until I started thinking
about this column, but I am, in fact a part-time carer of my
widowed, 82-year-old mother who lives nearby in sheltered
accommodation run by a housing association. She is getting frailer
and sadder as day by day her body surprises her with new problems
which resist the power of drugs and clever doctors. Too many of her
friends are dying and she feels traumatised each time. As the only
Asian in the building she often feels intensely lonely and bored.
As she gets older, she finds it harder to speak in English (which
she taught herself by watching Coronation Street and other soaps)
and this makes it difficult for her to communicate her needs to the
helper who comes in once a week to do a basic two-hour clean and
shopping, something which was arranged by social services after her
near-fatal heart attack.

At her
age, she has been forced to accept that some of the inmates don’t
like her because they don’t care for “Pakis”. This has been a shock
because her sweet nature never allowed her to believe this

these issues are mine to deal with and I can’t say I do as much as
I should, but I do try. If something dreadful happens to me, she
will have nobody else to care for her as my sister lives in Wales
and my brother has moved abroad. I know my children will survive,
or even thrive, if I am not there for them because they have each
other and their father. But for my poor mother, as for so many
other black and Asian people – old, sick or disabled, children too
– they all depend on family members to care for them because the
system cannot provide for them properly (there are not that many
interpreters, for example, in local authorities) and because that
is the expectation within some communities.

today I thought of myself as a daughter with some absolute
obligations – as non-negotiable as those I owe the children I
brought into the world. I do think it is an important value, but it
can and does lead to an inevitable inequality within this society.
All those families, including white families where such obligations
are deep beliefs, are, in our society, in effect punished for their

get no payment, don’t feel they have the right to access services
and do, I am sure, miss out on much that they can rightfully
demand. Some even think there is a terrible shame in getting the
state to recognise their role and the work. For many black and
Asian Britons that sense of shame is intensified because there is
still this idea that these people are “guests” in someone else’s
home (remember this is how David Blunkett described immigrants only
a few months ago) and white pensioners and local authority staff
can sometimes display these attitudes too.

A few
years back I wrote a book for Age Concern on the needs of 10 ethnic
minority communities. My research confirmed previous findings on
black and Asian carers. These carers are isolated, ill-informed,
poor, unappreciated even by the people they are caring for. One
55-year-old Asian caring for her infirm mother told me, in
Gujarati: “We must look after our old and sick people and not throw
them in the dustbin.

our lives are very hard and nobody cares that we are doing this
seva (service). I am a widow, a sister, a daughter, a nothing in
the family. They think I should keep quiet, but what about me? Who
looks after me?”

Another woman, a Muslim, said she
was ashamed that she had to wash and look after her incontinent
father-in-law. She also had a very bad back but didn’t know where
to ask for help. The worst case I saw was of a Chinese woman who
was looking after a daughter with cerebral palsy and her own mother
who had Alzheimer’s and was not entitled to any pension. She’d had
no respite for five years and didn’t know where to turn for

It is
doubly worrying that even if you are educated, employed and able to
access services, it still feels as if accessing them would somehow
be a travesty, a betrayal of your relative and the expectations of
society. This is how I am feeling at the moment. I realise that I
need to change the way I see my role, and that both my mother and I
have a right to ask for more than we do.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a
journalist and broadcaster.

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