Black History Month – Tammy’s story

My Home Life England is marking Black History Month in October 2020 and celebrating Black people’s vital contribution to social care in care homes across the country. Care homes, and social care more broadly, would undoubtedly not exist in their current form without the valued contributions from their Black workforce. We also continue to recognise the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 continues to have on the Black community and that people have selflessly risked their own health during the pandemic by continuing to care for some of society’s most vulnerable citizens living in care homes.

We are also sharing the personal stories and achievements of Black individuals that have a connection to My Home Life.

This is Tammy’s story:

The Black Lives Matter movement, together with the news about so many Black people and people of colour in our health and social care system being vulnerable, and dying, as a result of COVID-19, has revealed painful realities and experiences.

I am not in the frontline of care any longer, but it makes me angry. My first job in a care home was many decades ago: I was 18, and as a light skinned person of colour, who had many privileges, I was not always treated well or taken seriously. I enjoyed my work with the residents, and I was brought up in a culture where older people were venerated, so I was shocked that they were not always cherished in society, and I had many lovely experiences offering personal care and having good conversations.

There was often great tenderness in the relationships with residents. But at times I did experience insults from residents about how I looked, my hair, my skin. Some would treat me as a servant, I was the only non-white face across the care staff, and it felt that I was getting more abuse than others. I remember trying to talk to the manager about it, who basically told me to ‘get over myself’.

I felt deeply hurt that my manager and colleagues didn’t see the impact this was having on me, on how belittled and rejected I felt; they didn’t stand up for me or offer their support. Looking back, it seems to me that were many ways they could have gently countered those racist insults and attitudes. They could have affirmed that my role as a care assistant was as a helper and a supporter – as an equal, not a servant. They could have said positive things about my appearance, my difference. There were many small gestures that would have conveyed that those racist comments and behaviours were not okay, to signal my inclusion as part of the home and to show caring and compassion for my feelings.

At the time we were trained to ‘orientate’ older people and to remind them where they were – which didn’t always go down well. I didn’t fully understand it back then, but simply ‘telling’ a resident who felt truly lost in a place and time that she had worked hard in her life and was now retired in a care home didn’t really address the deep bewilderment and distress that they were expressing.

However the cook (who was a woman of African Caribbean Heritage) was sensitive to the emotional world of the residents. Instead of contradicting their experience, she got alongside them, she sympathised with their feelings, and reassured them through her presence. She used to comfort and reassure me too. Her kindness and love were immense and she held a certain authority within the home. I wished it was her in the manager’s office.

Years later, I went on to work as a senior social worker in statutory mental health. I was often undermined by my own colleagues who made decisions that seemed to me to be harsh on black people and people of colour. My judgements were not always accepted, particularly when I was proposing not to detain a Black person in hospital. Again, I was lucky to have worked alongside some extraordinary colleagues, many of them Black women who were incredibly dedicated and inspiring social workers, who contributed to anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice at the same time as they worked with elders in largely white communities. They were tender, tireless and fearless in pursuing the right care and the entitlements and rights of these older people, many who found themselves living in unfit housing and without adequate support. The memory of these women has stayed with me and has continued to inspire me.

This time of anger and awakening is needed. Ageism and racism are deeply embedded in our society and in our care system. There are older people who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. A large part of the health and care workforce who care for them are also profoundly impacted, whilst also often being marginalised, excluded and economically disadvantaged. Recognising and celebrating their contribution is important.

Black Lives Matter and Black History Month have offered me an opportunity to bring memories back, to reflect again, to honour the work of the many Black carers and people of colour who live and work in care homes, and to be a part of the way My Home Life England is reflecting on its own role in making a difference.

Tammy Tawadros, My Home Life Facilitator