Up late again?

A service for older Bangladeshi people that is flexible enough to fit in with their cultural needs has won a Community Care Award. Sarah Bartlett reports

A place that just starts to buzz at two in the morning sounds like the coolest night spot in town rather than a place where older people live. But at Sonali Gardens, an extra care and day care scheme in east London, they do things differently.

The Community Care Award-winning scheme is aimed at, although not exclusively for, Tower Hamlets’ Bangladeshi community – the largest in the country – and is delivered with the help of the voluntary sector.

The word Sonali means “warm heart” in Bengali. This translation has been carried through to the way the scheme is run as services fit in with family life and are designed to encourage maximum contact with relatives, local clubs and mosques.

David Cowell, joint commissioning manager for older people at Tower Hamlets, explains how lively Sonali Gardens can be. “It really comes alive at about two in the morning as relatives come to visit the residents on their way home from work – most of whom work on Brick Lane in restaurants,” he says.

Hailed as a national example of good practice by the Department of Health’s Housing Learning Improvement Network, the extra care unit comprises 30 one-bedroom and 10 two-bedroom homes. With separate prayer rooms, ablution rooms and lounges for men and women, bilingual signs and vibrant Bengali art and furnishings, the centre does its best to create a home from home for those who use it.

“One of many culturally appropriate aspects of the day centre is subscribing to Bengali TV channels,” says Rupert Williams, the director of St Hilda’s East Community Centre and the person responsible for Sonali Gardens day centre. “Being able to see TV directly from Bangladesh is really important – it means they can get news directly from home.”

The day centre has the feel of a bustling family home. The staff, who speak the community’s languages, address the elders as auntie and uncle.

The women’s lounge is alive with chatter, and impromptu dancing often springs up. The men’s lounge, on the other hand, is rather more sedate – Bangladeshi newspapers and TV dominate.

For one woman, “mixing with people, talking in Sylheti, socialising and being able to pray” are the things she values most about the centre.

Ian Wilson, the council’s social services director, says: “These people should, as they reach older age, have a choice of services that take into account that they’re Muslim, that they may prefer to speak Sylheti, may want to pray five times a day and will want to eat halal food. You only have to put yourself in their shoes for one minute to realise how oppressive services that didn’t take these things into account would be.”

The £5,000 prize will help to realise the wishes of the day centre users who want to do some gardening. Williams says. “They’re keen to grow Bangladeshi vegetables, such as pumpkins, chilli and coriander.”

Winning the award means a lot to everyone who fought – against some negative press – to ensure that the rhetoric around delivering sensitive and culturally appropriate services became a reality in Tower Hamlets. Wilson says: “We’re proud of the project. We’re offering appropriate services to people from the Bangladeshi community in old age. It’s to society’s advantage to bring brilliant services to people.”


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