Gilbert and Hortense, two of Andrea Levy's Small Island protagonists would be well into their 70s by now. After a lifetime here, how would they now face the challenge of growing old in a country that first shunned their arrival? Bafta-winning Birmingham author Mandy Richards reports on the particular cultural perspective that shapes how elderly Black Britons are cared for
Traditionally, for people of Afro-Caribbean origin, the concept of a 'care home' is alien. For those born "back home" in the Caribbean the term will conjure images of Alms Houses that were strictly the preserve of the poor. Our mothers, some of whom will have spent their entire working lives as care assistants or domestics in old people's homes or nursing the elderly in British hospitals, wholly resist the prospect. This sentiment is generationally engrained. The effort put in, to raise and educate families with an average of six kids on shift work wages, is the conscious debt Black Brits now benefiting from their parents' struggle owe them.
"We don't put our people into homes," is a familiar mantra. So what do we do? With communities fragmenting and cultural norms fusing, how are Afro-Caribbean communities managing to care for what is proportionally, the largest non-white elderly population in the UK?
Department of Health statistics reveal over 300,000 older people live in residential care in Britain. Of the 62,000 elderly Black Caribbeans in the UK virtually none are in care homes. The assumption that lack of access to care or financial hardship might be the chief considerations here lacks insight.
Social and economic circumstances may have some part to play but the cultural difference that divides views on the responsibility of care for the elderly is what principally separates black from white.
My dad has said: "If I ever get to the state when I can't look after myself, just stick me in a home." Tony Antrobus, aged 43, the son of a miner, says this typifies the unspoken agreement between many white parents and their children. There is a reciprocal understanding that the parents would not want to be a burden on their children. With Caribbean families there's less likely to be a burden of guilt either way. Care homes are simply not an option.
Patricia Reilly, aged 69, worked as a care assistant in the West Midlands for more than 20 years and views the prospect of ever having to be cared for in the British care system with trepidation.
When she came to England in 1956 she earned just #9, sending #2 and 10 shillings of that back home for her daughter and to help her mother. She views the relationships between generations here pessimistically: "These children over here they could be working a million, they don't turn round and ever give their parents anything."
Confident that her own old age will be comfortable, having been financially prudent through the 80s boom and bust, she is also reassured that at least two of her six children are willing and able to provide long term care should she need it.
However, she fears for other West Indians her age: "Some black people they got nothing in this country and their children don't give them bread. They'll just go into old people's homes the same as white people. It's happening now."
Women of Reilly's age and background tend to have large extended families. In many of these families there are also unspoken agreements amongst the children about who will look after the parents should they come to need dedicated care.
Most accept the responsibility willingly. The connection with how things are done in the Caribbean is still strong but with successive generations, the more fragmented families become, the more this sense of intergenerational responsibility appears to be dwindling.
Modern black British families of Caribbean heritage have, more so than any other Black and minority ethnic groups, bought into a British way of life. A 2.2 kids family average, compared to 4.5 for the largest Asian communities, together with an individualistic attitude to health, wealth and prosperity, as well as the high numbers of interracial marriages have all served to undermine the cohesion of community.
For second generation Caribbeans there's no guarantee that what remains will provide any comfort in old age.
Many of the Windrush generation themselves complain that a high percentage of their peers have turned their backs on the Caribbean.
Arriving here as economic migrants from the late 40s onwards they now see England as home, but regrettably acknowledge that their children have adopted an English attitude.
Care sector professionals too, have recently asserted that immigrant communities are no longer close-knit enough to provide the kind of informal networks that they used to.
Compounding this problem are also the age differentials which are inevitably skewed among immigrant communities. National Statistics for age distribution according to ethnic identity reveal that next to the White Irish, Black Caribbeans have the largest proportion of people aged 65 and over, 11 per cent, or 62,000. This reflects the first large-scale migration of non-Whites to Britain back in the 1950s.
Increasingly then in recent years, 30 and 40-something Black Caribbeans have become more conscious of their own parents' mortality. There has been a rapid succession of simultaneous deaths.
Beloved aunts, uncles, family friends and extended family members who provided the community infrastructure are passing away and with them goes some of the immediate sense of a distinct Caribbean way of living. Llewellyn Graham, Chief Executive of the Birmingham-based Nehemiah Housing Association (NHA), special-ising in Black and minority ethnic care, understands that what is happening to the Black Caribbean and Black Asian communities in the UK now, is exactly what happened to the British mainstream community some years ago.
The younger generation with young families and work tensions haven't necessarily got the time to care. It may not be that they don't want to, but more because of the lifestyle demands in this country which are very different to the Caribbean or the Asian sub-continent.
The NHA's brand of caring however, acknowledges and works with the constraints of modern living and has adapted good practice from mainstream housing associations to provide a formula that works for not only BME communities but provides a look at the future face of community care for the elderly in the UK.
One of more than 60 such specialist associations up and down the country, NHA's rapid rate of expansion in the past two decades bears testament to the growing need for culturally specific community care for the elderly.
Born out of the community activism of The Church of God of Prophecy they recognised that isolated black elders living on their own in high rise blocks or council flats were simply dropping off the Social Services radar - unable or not wishing to access services that they felt didn't cater for them. Set to become one of the largest organisations of its kind the NHA is now joining forces with United Churches Housing Association (UCHA). With a joint spread of 500 properties the potential benefits for BME communities is massive.
Reaching out to the communities they serve holistically, they aim to help buck any noticeable trend toward community disintegration. Most importantly they offer communities an alternative. In addition to going "back home" and family reunification there's now another much vaunted third way to stay directly connected with family through retirement schemes with a black bias. Residents are encouraged to have the children and grandchildren round whenever we want and family anniversaries are often celebrated on site too.
For families nervy of institutional regimen the NHA complexes have a reassuring air of autonomy in a community seemingly free of the formality of nurses uniforms, medication rounds and set feeding times.
Lenny Henry one of Britain's most famous Caribbean sons has lent his family's name to one of NHA's newest developments in his home town Dudley. Named in honour of his late mom Winifred, a member of the church that founded NHA, Henry opened the #4.4million retirement complex last year.
With 38 one and two bedroomed flats for a diverse multi-cultural group, elderly and frail residents have the luxury of specially designed facilities including a quiet lounge and events room, dining room, laundry room, library/craft room and a beauty salon. It also provides a day centre for the elderly community of Dudley in partnership with the Dudley Befriending Service. It's a safe and comfortable environment for supported independent living.
Talking of Winifred Henry's generation Llewellyn Graham insists: "They were the pioneers within our community, now they are the ones who are retiring and in need of our help."
NHA provides them with their own homes, with their own front door, surrounded by their own things in an environment reminiscent of communal living in the Caribbean.
Graham, now 44, is optimistic about his own future retirement plans and that of black Brits like him. He's hoping to spend time here and in the Caribbean when the time comes. He's confident the work of organisations such as NHA will have demonstrated sufficiently that many people now don't see themselves ending up in one room with a single bed and a television. The whole concept is so outdated, "not even white people want to go there any more!"