All too often “ethnic elders” are seen as a unified group. However,
recent research shows this perception should be avoided, with
location, traditions and communities providing important contexts.
Most refugees in the UK are younger people and so the needs of
older refugees can be overlooked. For a survey reporting on the
needs of 50 older refugees from Sierra Leone now living in London,
researchers interviewed 39 women and 11 men: all had arrived in the
UK after the civil war of 1991.1 As with some other
studies of ethnic minority groups, this research defined “older” as
over 50 years of age, in view of possible premature ageing and
It was found that older refugees had received little information
about local services, such as health care, libraries and police.
Many did not know of any source of advice and were often uncertain
about their health and legal positions.
Some of the older refugees also said they were isolated. Faith
groups provided some support but many did not know of other social
activities. For some, problems in socialising were exacerbated by
transport and communication difficulties.
The report recommends that refugee self-help groups pay attention
to the needs of their older members, for example, by visiting them
at home, providing social events and tailoring information to their
A study of respite care in Leicester and its use by Asian
communities takes a detailed look at perceptions of this type of
service.2 The full report is lengthy but the online
summary may be helpful in pointing out the impact of social
attitudes, culture, family structures and expectations. The
detailed interviews with Asian families add to our knowledge in key
First, families made use of day care but infrequently used respite
support. Many associated respite with residential care. To use
either created the impression that they were abandoning their
relative: residential care was often feared by the older person and
incurred social disapproval.
Second, families are changing, not abandoning care for older
relatives but moving away, women are working outside the home and
multigenerational households are not always so common. These
changes seem to be accompanied by shifts in the position, attitudes
and expectations of the daughter in law – previously the common
The researchers suggest that moves to see respite as a preventive
rather than crisis service may provide opportunities to make the
service more culturally sensitive, but that making it acceptable
will also be required.
Indeed, responses to older refugees take place in a context of
social perceptions of growing racial prejudice. The Home Office
Citizenship Survey reports that 43 per cent of adults in England
and Wales consider that there is more racial prejudice today than
five years ago, although 17 per cent think there is less and 33 per
cent think it is about the same.3 Interestingly, such
perceptions are higher among white people, people aged 50 and
above, women, and those from lower economic groups. These groups
were also more likely to think there will be more racial prejudice
in the future.
Disturbingly, council services and housing authorities were
perceived as discriminatory by a minority, and more so than
education or health services. Explanations for this and potential
solutions are clearly needed.
Jill Manthorpe is professor of social work at King’s
1 Sierra Leone Women’s Forum
UK, Caring and Maintaining: a Needs Assessment Research into
the Needs of Elderly Refugees within the Sierra Leone Community in
London, SLWF-UK, 2003.
2 N Jewson, S Jeffers and V
Kalra, In Our Blood: Respite services, Family Care and Asian
Communities in Leicester, University of Leicester,
3 C Attwood et al, The 2001
Home Office Citizenship Survey, Home Office, 2003