Culturally sensitive social work is about more than meeting social care needs

Understanding a client's identity by finding out what's important and meaningful to them helps find the best outcomes, says Jewish Care's Simone Swimer

Photo: Blake Ezra Photography

By Simone Swimer

Providing culturally sensitive care is crucial to what I do at Jewish Care and it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. I work within the community support and social work team at Jewish Care which is made up of a team of professionals who provide support and advice and advocate on behalf of clients. The team offers both practical and emotional support to individuals, families and carers and works in partnership with the NHS, local authorities and other care providers.

When I visit someone my role is to understand the personal circumstances that have led to this first meeting, which may come at a moment of crisis in their lives. But it’s finding out about them as a person, as well as their social care needs, that helps me assist in finding the best outcomes.

Personal identity

To find out the kind of person they are I need to ask, “What’s important to you?” What’s meaningful to you in your life?” In short, I try to find out what makes them, them. For many people using our services at Jewish Care, being Jewish is as much a part of what makes up their personal identity, as their family and their previous profession. They come to us because they believe we will understand them.

Whether they see being Jewish as their religion, their culture or their community, there are many variations of cultural and religious identity that will shape the kind of care that will bring them the most benefit.

The reason many people contact Jewish Care is because, as the largest social care organisation for the Jewish community in the UK, they feel comfortable asking for support because they feel they will be understood and not stereotyped. Understanding diversity within the black and minority ethnic (BME) community not only demands that social workers do their jobs well, it is a legal requirement since the Equality Act 2010.

As is the case with members of all BME groups in the UK, each arrival has its own story. To truly provide personalised care I try to understand their personal journey, so I ask, where were you born, where did you grow up, did you have siblings, did you marry, have children, do you belong to a synagogue? Their answers tell me a lot about who they are today, what’s important to them and help me deliver personalised care and support. If someone tells me that they grew up in the east end of London and lived there all their lives, or another says that they arrived in the UK from Europe in the 1930s, that tells me a lot about their background.

You don’t have to be from the community to start to understand the nuances within it. I’m constantly learning more about British culture as an Australian who has lived here for more than 12 years. At Jewish Care, everyone who works for the organisation receives Jewish way of life training so that they can work within a framework and use that as a guide.

Holistic view

Understanding a person’s identity, whether that be meeting a carer who is supporting a partner with dementia or someone who is living with a progressive illness, provides a more holistic view that in turn helps to design appropriate care, such as finding a care home or a home care service to support them. For the person who grew up in London’s east end, I may recommend that they go to one of our Memory Way Cafés or attend one of our day centres for people living with dementia, where they will meet others who also grew up in the same area. There they could use reminiscence work around east end life and eat familiar foods, working with past memories and experiences to build confidence and encourage social connections.

Part of our work involves advocating for people who use our services across local authorities and multi-disciplinary health professional teams. Not everyone who comes to Jewish Care wants to move to a Jewish home, but many do and when we’re working together part of our role is to emphasise that finding out whether they require kosher or halal food and agreeing to provide a care package which incorporates this diet, is not the end point to meeting a person’s religious and cultural needs.

It is important to know a person’s dietary needs but this does not define meeting their cultural needs; there is so much more to take into account in providing culturally appropriate services. For example, have they taken part in their local religious or cultural community in any way during their life – as a member of a religious place of worship or as a volunteer for a local charity? That signals to me to find out whether they have some support system available there, and other resources that can be explored through that community be it a mosque, church or temple.

Community and customs

I’ve supported people who’ve never identified themselves as religious but feel they have a strong cultural identity. They may have a strong sense of the community they have lived in and when it comes to going to live in a care home, that is the kind of community they want to spend their last years in, where they feel understood by those around them and where the culture, foods, sounds and rhythms remind them of their younger days and where, in the case of dementia, these prompts are vital to help them reconnect with their personal identity.

If cultural and religious customs have been important to them all their life, then it will be even more important to meet this need at the end of life. And when considering palliative and end-of-life care, we need to talk about future plans when things get more difficult. Understanding burial plans is a really important element too, especially where people are isolated with no close family members, we need to understand that these wishes will often be closely tied in with cultural identity.

If we are working hard to acknowledge this we are seeing the whole person and giving them the best possible chance to live this part of their life in a way that is meaningful to them.

Simone Swimer is a senior social worker for Jewish Care


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