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Did you hear the one about the Irishman? by Dr Mary Tilki

Did you hear the one about the Irishman? You probably heard the tasteless joke and you may have laughed or you may have cringed. But did you know that the older Irish community in Britain face all the challenges older people face as well as the discrimination their peers face from Black and Minority (BME) groups? Being white (mostly) and speaking English (mostly), policymakers and providers presume we are the same as the British population. While we have many similarities, we have differences that become more apparent and important when we grow older.

In fact we have more in common with our BME brothers and sisters than we do with the majority population.

Irish communities living in the UK

The 2011 census shows that the Irish community in Britain has a higher proportion aged above 55 and beyond pension age than the general population or other minority ethnic groups. Older Irish people are more likely to live alone as significant numbers are widowed or divorced and many never married. We experience high levels of limiting long-term illness and have the highest rates of cancer in the population as well as some of the highest rates of heart disease and stroke, depression and anxiety. These all add to the age-related risk of dementia.

Irish travellers have the worst health in the population and although life expectancy is low, the incidence of dementia is rising. Not surprisingly, Irish people and Irish travellers provide some of the highest levels of informal care in England.

Staying in the UK, missing Ireland

So what? I hear you say! Irish people came to Britain with the intention of staying for a few years, and the notion of going home at the end of their days kept the dream alive for them. Because of children and grandchildren in Britain, and the loss of parents, siblings and changes in Ireland, many decided not to return. Poverty and ill health are also major barriers to going back and although some people are content to stay in Britain, their home in their heart is in Ireland. Most Irish people will have kept in touch with their culture over the decades and will continue to do so in the twilight years. Many will feel very comfortable in Irish environments and prefer these to local clubs or social events.

The impact of dementia

When memory fails, as in dementia, people rely on memories of an earlier time and get pleasure from reminiscing about old times, sharing stories of migration, Irish dancehalls, listening to singing or playing Irish music and generally being Irish. Irish people do not have the same language problems as people from other cultures but accents, the way English is spoken and terms for everyday objects can be different and confusing for non-Irish people. Some Irish people from Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) areas of Ireland lose the ability to speak their second language (English) following a stroke or dementia.

Remembering the “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” signs

Although Irish people enjoy sharing memories about the good old days, not all their memories are happy and this accounts for their discomfort with mainstream clubs and activities. They recall the “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish” signs when they sought work or accommodation on arrival. They recall the hostility experienced during the 70s and 80s, when the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1973, meant all Irish people were suspected of supporting or engaging in terrorism. Although only some people were arrested, the act legitimated widespread harassment of anybody with an Irish accent or name.

Irish people kept their heads down and felt safe only in Irish surroundings. These feelings have not gone away.

Secrets

Irish people left Ireland primarily for work but many were also escaping a narrow-minded, authoritarian culture. Some were leaving harsh, cruel families and others were fleeing orphanages or industrial schools where they were physically, psychologically and sexually abused. Women who had babies out of wedlock were banished and many came to Britain. Gay and lesbian men and women left because there was no place for them in Ireland.  Many have lived with these “secrets” throughout their lives but some may want to disclose and deal with them at the end of their years. Either way, the need to understand the older Irish community in Britain is critical.

Discrimination in policy

Older Irish experience ageism in the same way as other communities but with additional discrimination at policy level. Including Irish ethnicity within the overall white census category, makes the Irish invisible and neglects the older age profile: including high rates of limiting illness (both physical and psychological) and increased risk of dementia.

Most importantly, it neglects the need for person-centred services that respect and value Irish culture and treat people as individuals.

Like our BME peers, we have played our part in British society and deserve equity and quality at the end of our days.

Dr Mary Tilki is a retired nurse and university lecturer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.

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