Public Release: 

Racism and quality of life of older people

Economic & Social Research Council

The impact of racism should be properly considered when attempts are made to measure the quality of life of older people among Britain's ethnic minorities, according to a report on new research sponsored by the Economic & Social Research Council.

Experience of racism was one of the clearest differences to emerge from a study of more than 200 older people led by Jabeer Butt of the REU, Britain's leading charity aimed at promoting race equality in social work and social care services for black and minority ethnic communities.

The research, which was jointly undertaken with the National Institute for Social Work Research Unit based at King's College London, calls for more work to be done on its long term effects.

While there is growing interest in quality of life and how it is judged in terms of people's expectations and factors such as health and income, until now little research has been based on the views of older people themselves. This is particularly true of older people from minority ethnic groups, says the report. Although they make up an increasing proportion of Britain's older population, they are rarely represented in significant numbers in mainstream research.

While the report highlighted the increasing diversity in people's experiences of growing older in Britain today, the area in which the clearest contrasts emerged between white older people and those from minority ethnic groups was the experience of racism.

Mr Butt said: "About half the people from minority ethnic groups said they had experienced racism - a figure which is likely to be an underestimate given a widespread reluctance to speak about the topic. By contrast, only those white people who were from a hidden minority, such as Welsh or Irish, or who had a Black partner, reported they had experienced racism."

Across all ethnic groups, the overwhelming majority of participants felt their relationships with their children and grandchildren were close. Although a small number of people from minority ethnic groups considered that their children were less willing to support their parents than they themselves had been, the majority emphasised that patterns of social support that may have been usual in their country of birth were not always possible in Britain today.

There seems to be an emerging trend for Black Caribbean and Asian older people to live in sheltered accommodation run by housing associations operated within these ethnic communities. People in this situation pointed out that it enabled them to live independently while maintaining close contact with their children.

Although many from minority ethnic groups visited their country of birth for holidays or family occasions such as weddings, the great majority saw themselves as firmly established in their local communities where they had lived for many years. They had no intentions of leaving Britain permanently.

"Older people's social lives are often presented in a very negative way, with the assumption that they are reliant on others to arrange any form of social contact. In fact, the report shows, there was a lot of give and take, with participants emphasising how they helped each other, offering company or emotional support in return for practical help, such as lifts", said Jo Moriarty of King's College London.

Although local friends and relations were an important source of support, many of those questioned, including white people, had family and friends living abroad or elsewhere in this country, with whom they kept in touch through visits, telephone calls, and sometimes e-mail.

Perhaps contrary to expectations, a high proportion of people identified religion as providing meaning and purpose to their lives. This was especially true of Black Caribbean women for whom their local church was one of their most important sources of social support.

The study also suggested an intriguing way in which Britain's older population from minority ethnic groups could play a role in countering experiences of ageism. Many participants, especially older white women, felt that they were viewed as being less capable as they grew older. While recognising some of the physical aspects of ageing, Asian and Chinese older people were more likely to point out that they had acquired greater wisdom and experience with age and that this helped them in their relationships with others.

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For further information:
Contact Jabeer Butt on 207-619-6229, e-mail: jabeer@reunet.demon.co.uk, or Jo Moriarty on 44-207-848-3972, e-mail jo.moriarty@kcl.ac.uk
Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at ESRC, on 179-341-3119/413122

NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The research report 'Quality Of Life And Social Support Among People From Different Ethnic Groups' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Jabeer Butt is deputy director of the REU, Unit 37, Tileyard Road, LONDON N7 9AH.
2. The sample of 203 people was almost evenly divided between men and women. More than half were currently married and a quarter widowed. They ranged in age from 55-100 years, with a mean average age of 69. Asians were the largest group (39 per cent), followed by Black Caribbeans (27 per cent), White (19 per cent) and smaller numbers of Chinese, Black African and people of mixed race.
3. REU is Britain's leading charity promoting race equality in the provision of social support and social care. REU began as part of the National Institute for Social Work and became an independent charity in 1996.
4. King's is one of the oldest and largest colleges of the University of London with some 12,400 undergraduate students and more than 4,700 postgraduates in schools of study. The College had 24 of its subject-areas awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level. It is in the top group of five universities for research earnings and has an annual turnover of more than £300 million and research income from grants and contracts in excess of £90 million (2001-2002).
5. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.esrc.ac.uk
6. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at http://www.regard.ac.uk.

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