‘If you’re taking care of older Muslim people, you have to understand what they need’

Muslim families have traditionally cared for older relatives within the home. Now, as working lives become more demanding, some are taking a different approach

Sana Noor Haq

Mature female nurse walking with senior man on steps at home
Family-based care remains deeply rooted in many of Britain’s Muslim communities. Photograph by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

As a teenager in south London, Yasin Zaman volunteered to support older people and did work experience in care homes. Now, at 33 years old, he still finds one moment especially memorable. While visiting one residential home, he was helping to organise a game of musical chairs for the residents. However, one Muslim woman was reluctant to take part. She said she felt uncomfortable dancing to music in front of men. 

“I obviously didn’t understand her needs. I also didn’t understand what angle she was coming from,” he told me during a recent video call. 

Zaman has worked in social care for more than a decade. His roles have included training foster carers and helping to run support groups for widows, but providing care for older people is where his passion lies. He now wants to help fill a vital gap in senior care that meets the cultural and faith-based needs of older British Muslims.

In 2015, Zaman drafted a business plan for Inaya Care, a residential home in Streatham that will provide halal food, access to a prayer room and facilities for ritual ablutions for around 20 residents. He credits his early experiences with helping him to understand “the lack of opportunity and the lack of provision when it comes to tackling some of the real-life issues” faced by older Muslims.

The home, which is now under construction and backed by private and community funds, will be one of only a handful of facilities in the country that cater to older Muslims. Zaman told me that more than 30 families have already registered interest in places and that he hopes to expand in the future. 

“You could have lots of bespoke preferences that come from our cultures that don’t get met in another home,” he explained. “If you’re going to be taking care of a Muslim person then you need to understand, what does that Muslim person need?” 

In line with general trends, longer life expectancies have led to a growing number of Muslim senior citizens in the UK. According to a 2019 report by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the number of Muslims in the UK aged 65 and over is estimated to increase from 110,000 in 2011 to 450,000 by 2036. The document states that 38% of people in that age category also live with debilitating health conditions. 

Still, the practice of family-based care remains deeply rooted in many of Britain’s Muslim communities. A 2020 report from the Office of National Statistics states that multi-generational households including a person aged 70 or over are about 50% more likely to occur among families with Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian heritage than their white peers. 

‘There is already a need for culturally and religiously sensitive care homes with a sympathetic ethos’

A certain stigma is also commonly attached to the idea of placing a loved one in a residential facility, but Dr Jamil Sherif, secretary of the MCB’s research and documentation committee, believes that could be set to change, as the demands of 21st-century life and work place ever greater strains on sons, daughters and loved ones.

“There is already a need for culturally and religiously sensitive care homes with a sympathetic ethos,” he told me via email. “This demand will increase exponentially in the next 10 to 20 years, as the numbers of elderly Muslims increase and economic pressures compel family members to leave the home and work for longer hours. The tradition of a strong household bond and extended family structure may well need to adapt, to some degree, to provide more flexibility in certain circumstances.”

Riaz Khan, a lecturer at De Montfort University, and his four siblings provide one example of how caring for elderly relatives can be effectively managed within a family. 

In 2013, their father was diagnosed with dementia. At the time, they were also looking after their mother, who was living with diabetes and immobile. Both of Khan’s parents lived together, in their own home. Instead of placing their father in a residential home, Khan and brothers and sister divided caregiving duties between them. They each stayed over at their father and mother’s house, following what Khan describes as a “rota system”  and looked after them until their deaths in 2017 and 2020, respectively. 

“As Asians and as Muslims, we look after our parents, don’t we?” 56-year-old Khan said. “In the old days, it used to be that extended families all lived together under one roof.”

Dr Nadia Sadiq, 31, is a psychologist based in Bristol. She told me that within some Muslim communities, in-home care provided by close family is an expectation rather than a choice. She added that some British Muslims are also reluctant to bring external carers into the home. 

“It can feel alien and, actually, a little bit wrong for some people,” Sadiq explained. “There’s a certain judgment, I think, that comes from people about doing things differently or if the child is not the one doing the caring,” she said.  

Zaman plans to create an effective bridge between family-based and residential care with his home. His plan is for carers to go into the homes of prospective residents, before any commitment is made, to form a relationship with them and their families which will then help with the onboarding. Family members will also be encouraged to visit their loved ones regularly, especially during major Islamic festivals. 

“That’s one of the other big changes in Inaya, compared with other care homes. We know that when we’re going to have visitors for each of the residents, they’re going to come in droves,” Zaman said. “And it won’t be once a month. It will probably be every other day or every week.”

‘Throughout history, caregiving has always been on the woman’

While caring for older relatives can be financially challenging and emotionally draining, it can also be rewarding and give family members an opportunity to show their appreciation for the years of love and support they have received from their parents and grandparents. 

Lubjana Matin-Scammell, a 41-year-old secondary school teacher from London, told me that her mother moved to the UK from what is now known as Bangladesh in the 1970s, escaping the country’s civil war in search of a better life. Now, it is Matin-Scammell’s turn to look after her. 

“She was a woman that gave up a huge family in a hot country, where she was probably relatively comfortable,” she said. “Then she came to freezing cold, foggy London. That was a turning point in her life.

“I cannot put my mother into a nursing home. I couldn’t have her feel that her child did that to her after the monumental sacrifices that she made for me.”

Matin-Scammell’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer three times and has required in-home care since 2016. Two years ago, when her mother’s condition began to deteriorate, Matin-Scammell, along with her husband and son, moved into her home. 

“There was this sense that, within my culture, that was my role,” she said. “It’s timeless, isn’t it? Throughout history, caregiving has always been on the woman.”

In a 2021 report, published by the British Medical Journal, it was found that women around the world do roughly three times more care and domestic work than men. The article also states that unpaid domestic and care work is linked to greater mental health problems and reduced quality of life. 

When asked about the mental and physical toll of caregiving, Matin-Scammell said: “It’s one of those questions where you only get to think about it when someone’s asked you. It is very rapid. I am on the go all the time. I work at a secondary school. My day begins before it’s even started and you don’t get time to catch up with yourself.”

Nadia Sadiq is well placed to recognise the signs of burnout owing to caregiving duties in her patients. After her mother-in-law was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS in the summer of 2020, Sadiq and her husband became primary carers. 

“Mine and my husband’s responsibilities have changed quite a lot as the condition progressed, which has been quite fast,” she explained. “So, there’s been a lot for us to get our heads around.”

“It can be really isolating. I think sometimes the carer becomes a bit lost in that. They’re doing their role, but is anybody looking out for them?”

Even though Matin-Scammell and Khan both refused to place their family members in residential care, they recognise that attitudes are likely to change among younger generations of British Muslims. 

“I could go myself. I have a child. I’m probably happy to go into a nursing home when my time comes,” Matin-Scammell said. 

Khan agrees with her. “I wouldn’t want my kids to go through what I went through, because it’s emotional stress. I don’t mind being put in a home because, at the end of the day, I’ll be around people who are going through a similar thing to me.”

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