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Cultural expectations to caring

Illustration of people of ethnic backgrounds walking together.

In some cultures, the word ‘carer’ doesn’t exist, because taking care of our family is an unspoken expectation.

But as our society changes, many of us find that we don’t have the extra family support that used to help us meet these cultural expectations.

This doesn't just apply to those caring for older family members either. It can also apply to those of us caring for disabled children, partners or siblings, all while dealing with attitudes and opinions around us.

Carers in our community have shared their experiences of balancing caring alongside work, their own lives, and the expectations of others.

Neha was born in East London to parents of Indian and Kenyan heritage. She is married and a mum to her young son, and cares for her mother who has been diagnosed with cancer. Here she tells us how her upbringing has shaped her role as a carer, and the value of having a strong support network. Read Neha’s story.

Awais was born in the UK with Kashmiri heritage. Along with his wife, he is caring for his two year old son. Awais shares what caring means within his South Asian culture, and some of the challenges he's overcome along the way. Read Awais’s story.

Linda was born in London to Vietnamese parents who migrated to the UK after the Vietnam War. She lives at home and is currently caring for her mum. She shares her cultural expectations of caring and how she struggled to identify with being a carer over the years. Read Linda’s story.

Noor, the oldest child of her family, cares for her Mum. She shares how growing up it's been hard to identify as a carer because it was expected of her to do so, not only because she had to, but that it was "out of love". Listen to her story.

Illustration of a globe pinning India and Kenya.

Neha’s story: "I've always felt there was an expectation or duty to care for my parents"

I'm 32 years old, a wife, and a mum to my 15-month-old son. My dad passed away a couple of years ago, and my mum is currently battling cancer for the second time. I’ve been involved with the care for both of them. I have a brother and sister who I’m very close to, who also now have children of their own.

My mum was born in India, my dad in Kenya, and my brother and sister were born in Kenya too. I'm the only one born here in the UK. Growing up, our household was a melting pot of cultures.

We observed Sikh traditions and celebrated Sikh holidays, but we lived in East London during a time when diversity wasn't as prevalent, so it was a blend of British surroundings with Indian traditions that didn't always seamlessly mix.

Caring for my dad during his final years was a significant part of my life. He battled various health issues, including diabetes, and spent his last days at home on palliative care. During that time, I was in my final year of university and took on the responsibility of getting him to his regular specialist appointments in central London.

The idea of seeking help from outside the family was always met with resistance. There was a strong belief that only members of the family could be trusted. Over the years I've felt my parents would prefer to rely on my siblings and me than try to deal with the language barrier.

As siblings, we each feel different pressures. My brother, being the eldest and the only boy, faces the most pressure to provide for the family now that our dad has passed away. Our culture dictates that the oldest son continues to live with the family, so he is the closest in proximity providing care.

“It often feels like our best isn’t enough”

In our culture, there's an expectation that when our parents need care, they'll move in with their children or their children in with them, rather than considering external help or care homes. This puts added pressure on us to conform to these expectations, even if they conflict with our personal values and beliefs.

My parents were able to survive on just my dad's wage. My mum was a full-time homemaker. Now it is much harder for a household to get by on one income. I think values and priorities have also changed as more women want to have meaningful career. It’s hard not to feel guilty if you’re unable to meet all of these conflicting expectations.

Find support from those around you

My husband, Alex, provides an invaluable perspective. He helps me see that the guilt and duty-bound feelings are normal, but that I’m doing everything I can.

There’s a benefit of having someone outside of the situation who knows you, to be open and honest and talk to, and he helps me remember that my values of being a good mum and having my own career are still a valid priority.

As well as Alex, I rely on two other sources of support. First, my siblings provide familiarity and shared experiences, even if we don't explicitly talk about support.

Second, talking to friends, both those who know I’m a carer and those who don't, offers a break from the daily challenges and reminds me of life outside of caregiving. I value time with people who know the situation but are still able to make me laugh.

My advice to others in a similar situation is to allow yourself to feel sad. It's essential to acknowledge your emotions rather than constantly distracting yourself.

Finding healthy outlets to express your feelings such as talking therapy or journaling, and seeking outside perspectives can make a big difference in navigating the challenges of caring for parents with different views and experiences.

Illustration of a globe pinning Kashmir.

Awais’s story: “My faith underscores the importance of honouring and caring for my parents as a pathway to heaven”

I was born and raised in the UK but my heritage traces back to Kashmir, a region in northern Pakistan, where my parents lived before they migrated to the UK.

My primary caregiving role revolves around my two-and-a-half-year-old son. He was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that affects the brain, and at just one year old he experienced a stroke. Looking ahead, I'll also be taking on the role of caring for my parents, who currently live with me.

As one of six siblings, I'm in the fortunate position of having a large family. In our South Asian culture, the responsibility of caring for ageing parents typically falls to the youngest son. When the time comes, my wife and I will be the ones expected to live with my parents and provide them with the care they need.

In many Pakistani families, it's a collective effort to raise children and care for the elderly. There’s a strong belief that "it takes a village," and this idea extends to looking after both the young and the elderly. Placing parents in care homes is considered a no-go, almost taboo. The unwritten rule is that family members should care for their ageing parents within the comfort of their own home.

In fact, care options have never been a topic of open discussion within our family. It's an unspoken understanding deeply ingrained in our religious and cultural beliefs. From a young age, we're taught that caring for our parents is not just a duty but also a means to gain spiritual rewards.

I’m a devout Muslim and our faith underscores the importance of honouring and caring for our parents as a pathway to heaven. Phrases like "heaven lies under the feet of your mother" emphasise the significance of this responsibility, passed down through generations.

Placing parents in care homes is considered a no-go, almost taboo. The unwritten rule is that family members should care for their ageing parents within the comfort of their own home.”

Within our community, there's a strong sense of being part of a larger family village. While this fosters a strong support system, it can also lead to carer burnout. Mental health issues are often brushed under the rug, making it challenging to seek help without feeling guilty.

Personally, I've come to understand the importance of prioritising my mental health while caring for my son, who has faced health challenges from a very young age. As his condition progressed, I noticed my own mental health deteriorating. I realised that to provide the best care for him, I needed to be mentally well myself. So, I reached out for support, recognising that not everyone has the same freedom to do so.

Balancing tradition with the modern world can be a bit of a juggling act

In our culture, it's common for extended family members to drop by unannounced when someone is unwell. In Kashmir, where the weather is warm, gatherings could easily take place outdoors. While refusing visitors might be considered impolite, I’ve had to stand my ground to protect my son's health.

At certain points in his recovery, having visitors could have jeopardised his immune system, so I firmly said no. This decision wasn't always well-received, as our culture highly values the presence of relatives during difficult times.

Nevertheless, I managed to strike a balance between upholding cultural norms and safeguarding my son's wellbeing. Using video calls for virtual visits allowed us to prioritise his health without isolating ourselves from our support network.

“I've come to understand the importance of prioritising my mental health while caring for my son. I realised that to provide the best care for him, I needed to be mentally well myself.”

As a family, we've unanimously decided against the idea of placing our parents in a care home, as it goes against our cultural and religious beliefs. While we may have different approaches to caring, me and my siblings all share a commitment to providing care within the family unit.

The evolving cultural and societal shifts, including changes in gender roles and smaller family sizes, have brought about new challenges. With both spouses often working outside the home, many South Asian families now grapple with the dilemma of balancing caregiving responsibilities with employment.

These shifts have prompted discussions within our community about the future of caring, emphasising the need for more open conversations about care options and support systems.

Illustration of a globe pinning Vietnam.

Linda’s story: “The term ‘carer’ feels like a very Western concept, so it’s taken me longer than the average person to accept that I am one”

Both of my parents migrated to the UK in their early 20s, with my dad being a refugee who arrived a few years after the Vietnam War by boat. My mum followed later through sponsorship - so she had the privilege of being on a plane for the first time!

Currently, I am the one who takes care of my mum, I don’t really like to say I’m my Mum’s “carer”. No one around me uses that word and it still feels awkward for me to use it in day-to-day language.

My Mum has had a whole list of health conditions, many from before I was born.

Right now, I’d describe my caring as ‘light touch’ since it involves tasks like taking her to appointments, translating for her as her English is limited, and managing her healthcare needs, such as appointments and prescriptions.

In our culture, there isn't a specific word for a ‘carer,’ but it's an implied role, especially for the youngest child, like me, who still lives with their parents. Caring for family members is an unwritten expectation.

Whether you're as young as 10 or 12, if you live with your parents, you are expected to do most things for them because you understand English and can help them in navigating the Western world.

There are moments when I do feel conflicted and guilty. There's a part of me that’s upset with them for not learning English more effectively when they came to the UK in their twenties. At times, I think they could have made more effort, but then I remind myself that they arrived here and had to immediately find work and build a new life.

Unlike me, they didn't have the privilege of education, and I’m sure moving to the UK wasn’t a life goal of theirs. It was more about escaping a country that was torn apart and working abroad so that they could provide for their family back home.

“In our culture, there isn't a specific term for a ‘carer,’ but it's an implied role, especially for the youngest child, like me, who still lives with their parents.”

Outside of my family, I have a lot of support from my friends. My best friend is a child well-being practitioner and she’s just amazing at helping me step back and see things from my parent’s point of view. It’s always so nice (personally) to have someone remind you that your parents are also figuring things out for the first time. That way, I’m not always dwelling in a ‘victim mentality’.

In terms of accessing support, the idea of going to the local council for help isn’t really ideal. But that may change as my situation changes. For now, I’m grateful to have such a caring circle around me.

To me, the word ‘carer’ feels like a very Western concept, so it’s taken me longer than the average person to accept that I am one. In all honesty, I still feel slightly removed from it, but it’s helpful to think of it as a label that you can take or leave. Mainly, it’s a necessity to navigate the Western system.

My parents and I don’t have deep conversations about our thoughts and feelings around care

The way my parents took care of their family was very much from a survival point of view because we came from a very poor family in Vietnam. Now my parents try to shield me from “hardship”. But in return, there’s a cultural expectation for you to give back to your parents.

Care homes are a big ‘no’ in our culture, as it’s viewed as ‘giving up’ on your parents. I have lots of understanding for those who do go down that route, but the cultural expectation is that we'll find alternative ways to support our parents, such as living with them and providing care ourselves.

In terms of my own future plans, it's challenging to imagine leaving my Mum for an extended period of time, whether it be travelling or living abroad. She’ll depend on me more the older she gets older, and her ability to navigate English and the healthcare system will only get trickier.

Balancing my job with caring can be challenging at times, but I'm really fortunate to work for a company that understands what unpaid carers have to do.

Mentally, I find that caring can be more mentally exhausting than physically demanding. Mainly due to the constant administrative tasks and resetting of passwords that aren’t for my account, cropping up throughout the day while I’m working.

My tip to others experiencing something similar is to have at least one person in your life who validates your feelings. All while gently reminding you to consider the perspective of the person you're caring for. That one person can really help you maintain a healthy balance between acknowledging your emotions and fulfilling your caring responsibilities.

Noor's story: "Caring for my parents was something I had to naturally do, not because I had but, but out of love"

Here, Noor, the oldest child of her family, explains how growing up taking care of her Mum was always something she was expected to do.

What’s next?

It can be helpful to read stories that reflect our own situations. It's so important to feel seen. Hopefully, these stories have made you feel less alone about how things are.

Maybe they have inspired you to make a little change to support your wellbeing, open up tricky conversations, or reach out to someone.

What would make a difference to you?

Want to talk more?

Connecting with others who "get it" can be a really powerful form of support. Think about if there is a friend or family member outside of the situation you can turn to. Or join us over at our Mobilise Hub, where lots of carers have connected to share experiences and tips.

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Further resources

A Scottish charity offering support to Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority carers, including those within the Gypsy/Traveller community.

A registered charity supporting the Irish community in Britain, including their carers.

A charity dedicated to ensuring that Black people in the UK have access to mental health support.

A charity that provides heavily subsidised online one-on-one counselling sessions for Black people aged 18+ in the UK, recognising the cultural importance of Black therapists supporting their communities.

CCWS runs a Carers’ Support Group with a dedicated Carers Support Manager, offering information, advice on carers’ rights, practical support, and a social network for carers within the Chinese community.

This network boasts the largest community of Counsellors and Psychotherapists of Black, African, Asian, and Caribbean heritage in the UK.

Boloh provides a helpline and webchat for Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority children, young people, parents, or carers in the UK, offering emotional support and practical advice.

If we didn’t identify as carers before reading this blog post, we may potentially be missing out on available financial support. Make sure to check out our financial checklist to ensure we’re accessing the support we deserve.

Our cuppas are a free 45-minute video call with around 12 other people who are also looking after a loved one. They are a great place to talk about the cultural and generational pressures that shape our caring. Each of our cuppas has a theme and everyone gets a chance to express themselves.


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