Words to the wise

Everybody, it has been argued, carries with them patterns of
thinking, perceiving, judging and acting that are not inherited but
learnt: all of which distinguishes one group of people from another
and defines their membership with society. In essence: their

Social care has always strived to be culturally “sensitive” and
culturally “comprehensive” (though it certainly hasn’t always
called it those things). In practice, meeting cultural needs means
being aware of, for example, different religious, dietary and
language choices. Indeed, language is crucial as it is the front
door into someone’s culture.

I recall visiting an older people’s home some years ago. One
resident was Indian. The other 59 were white British. He spoke no
English. Staff and other residents spoke nothing but. He had no
visitors. Staff generally communicated with gestures for drinks,
food, toilet and bedtimes. One member of staff had found and
brought in a Bollywood movie video. He seemed to enjoy it. The
video was possibly the first time he had heard his own language in
the three years he had been in the home.

Such a scenario, thankfully, shouldn’t happen now. And certainly
not at the progressive and multi-cultural Blakenhall community
resource centre in Wolverhampton, a city with a 12 per cent Indian
population. Formerly a residential care home, Blakenhall – a joint
health and social services project – now provides a setting for
home care services and day care, as well as long and short stay
residential care. It is also the base for the community mental
health team.

“Over the past four years we have brought a number of specialised
services for older people with mental health needs under one roof,”
says community resource manager Anthony Hipwell. “Along with
colleagues from social services and health care we formed a project
group to look at services provided locally for black and minority
ethnic service users.”

With many service users and staff unable to speak the same
language, it was apparent that the quality of service was adversely
affected. Unsurprisingly, limited communication can only permit
superficial relationships to develop between staff and service

“Obviously we have a mixed cultural background in our staffing
because a lot of people who work here live locally,” says Hipwell.
“But we recognised the need to do something across the

The solution was to hold a language course for staff. The basic
Punjabi language skills course covered basic greetings, clothing,
parts of the body, role play, pictures, simple requests, time, and
asking if someone was in pain.

“We tied in with a local college of further education,” says
Hipwell. “It wasn’t expensive and I was able to fund it out of our
small training budget. We ran the 12-week course which was three
hours one evening a week. We invited colleagues from the local
hospital and made sure there was a mixture of staff – not just care
staff. For example, one of the administrative staff did it. She is,
after all, the first port of call if people ring in. It’s been very

Staff agree. “It was really useful,” says specialist support worker
Andrew Proctor. “To be able to say a little bit, even just to be
able to say ‘hello’ is, I think, a great sign of reassurance and
respect. For our service users, not speaking the language can be an
isolating experience. As it was only a basic course, I’m not able
to fully understand service users when they answer back – but it’s
a start. It was a rewarding experience and I felt that I achieved

Although plans are afoot to run a more advanced version, one staff
member at least is not waiting. Senior staff nurse Linda Pearson,
who works in the day care service, has been taking evening classes
in her own time. “I think it’s really important,” she says. “The
quality of our service is so much improved. I have a huge folder of
information about different Asian religions and culture that keeps
expanding. There’s always something else to learn or find out

Lessons learned

  • Language classes need to be part of a positive approach to
    providing culturally sensitive services that encourage, for
    example, service users to join in activities. Art and craft work
    now includes Hindu and Sikh symbols. A library of books, videos and
    music in Asian languages is also taking shape.
  • Involve carers from the community. A carers’ support group for
    Asian elders meets monthly at the centre. “It’s very well attended
    by about 30 people,” says team leader, Julie Craig. The carers have
    been instrumental in bringing people into contact with services,
    who previously were coping on their own. 
  • Make use of staff skills. One staff member (Harjinder Juttla)
    has produced written information on culture and dementia in four

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