Growing old in an alien setting

Increasing numbers of elderly South Asians in the UK find themselves growing old alone.

Europe’s population is living longer than ever before and with ageing populations come major economic and social challenges.

By 2050, increasingly lengthy life spans and slumping birth rates will mean that Europe’s workforce will decrease by 38 million, while those aged 65 and over will rise by 40 million.

As part of Al Jazeera’s special series on Europe’s ageing population, Shamim Chowdhury looks at South Asians in the UK.

Abjol Miah is a busy man. As well as holding down a full-time job and fulfilling his duties towards his wife and four children, he also keeps a constant eye on his elderly parents.

This latter commitment is made all the more difficult because, in a move away from the traditional Bangladeshi culture his family belongs to, Abjol has chosen to live outside his parental home.

His decision is one example of a growing social phenomenon in Britain, where sons of South Asian immigrants are moving out of the family home when they marry, opting instead for a nuclear family arrangement more in line with mainstream British society.

Abjol says the break-up of his extended family is an inevitable consequence of living in the West, but insists his relationship with his parents will not be damaged.

“What matters is the love we have for each other as a family,” he says.

“My brothers, sisters and I all keep an eye on our parents, so if they need any help with anything, like being taken to the doctors, we make sure someone is around to do that.”

Abjol’s separation from his parents is all the more poignant because he is the eldest son.

In Bangladeshi culture, as with other South Asian cultures, the ultimate responsibility for the parents in their old age lies with the first-born male, who usually lives under the ancestral roof his whole life.

Poor social conditions

Abjol says he had no alternative but to seek accommodation outside his parents’ home, citing lack of space as the main reason.

Abjol says ‘what matters is the love we have for each other as a family’

“Back in Bangladesh there’s a lot of land. It’s not difficult to build extensions to accommodate big, extended families,” he says.

“Here in Britain we can’t do that. The houses are small and most people can’t afford to live in a huge place that can fit dozens of members of one family.”

Britain’s South Asian community, in particular Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, suffer from poorer social conditions, especially when it comes to housing, than other communities.

Many live in small, rented flats which are owned by local authorities.

Research also shows that more South Asians earn lower wages than other Britons, meaning that many simply cannot afford to buy property.

Owning a large house in which the entire extended family can live is often out of the question.

Extended versus nuclear

But low income is not the only reason for the slow demise of the traditional extended family.

Other South Asians, in particular those who are highly educated and in professional jobs, are moving away from their parents purely as a lifestyle choice.

Support groups try to cater to the religious and language needs of elderly South Asians

Many find the nuclear family scenario more appealing because it allows them a level of privacy they would not have with their parents permanently around and gives them more autonomy over their own family affairs.

Whatever the reason for the breakdown of the extended family, the fact remains that increasing numbers of elderly South Asians are finding themselves alone.

As a result they are being forced to look outside the home for companionship, help and advice.

The problem is becoming so widespread that support groups across Britain have now started to acknowledge it and are adapting their policies accordingly.

Age Concern’s Syeda Ali says: “There is a stereotype that South Asian families all stick together, live under one roof and are constantly there for each other.

“But these days that’s not necessarily the case. Elderly people find themselves alone and isolated because their children move out of the family home when they reach adulthood.

“More and more South Asian elderly people are showing signs of mental illness and depression as a result of this change in the family structure.

“Often their situation is made worse by the fact that many don’t speak any English, so they can’t even turn to anyone outside the community for help.”


As a response to this phenomenon, day centres have sprung up across Britain where elderly South Asians can receive the companionship and help which in the past would have been found within the family home.

These centres cater for those with specific language and religious needs and provide an environment where they feel comfortable and can meet others with whom they share a common culture.

Shamim Rehman says she decided to open her care centre for elderly Muslim women in north-west London after noticing that many women from that demographic suffered from depression.

“I noticed so many women from the community were withdrawn, hardly talking, had practically given up on life,” she says,

“Often their children weren’t around much, so they really had no-one to turn to.

“Since coming here they’ve got a new lease of life. They get companionship they were lacking and they’ve gained so much more confidence.”

Traditional values

Abjol’s dream is to one day buy a big house where he can live with his mother and father. But he knows that there is every chance that this may never happen.

He also accepts that as time passes, the nuclear family will become more and more prevalent, and that even his own children will most likely choose it when they grow up.

But while he knows that little can be done to reverse this trend, he still holds on to the old values as much as he can and vows to always do right by his parents.

“One thing is for certain,” he says, “my mother and father will never end up in an old people’s home. Never.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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