Cumulative disadvantage

There are “stark inequalities in how different people experience later life. While some of us enjoy the benefits of longer lives, others may experience later life as a time of profound challenge.”

The number of older ethnic minority people in Britain is likely to grow in future years, subject to differences in life expectancy and migration. We know that housing, health and financial deprivation are more common amongst minority groups. These inequalities are compounded for people with other protected characteristics and reflect the process of cumulative disadvantage in housing and employment, and the impacts of migration. Understanding my family history makes this both a personal and political priority for me.

My mother’s story

My mother died last December in a nursing home following a stroke earlier in the year that took away her last semblance of independence. Her story shows the effect that shocks can have on experiences of later life. She came from India to England in 1951 – a part of the ‘Windrush’ generation. She received British citizenship in 1957 and was both a royalist and traditional conservative. She was an infant school teacher in Hampshire and became a headmistress in the 1960s. This meant that when she retired she was privileged with a good public sector pension. In the 1970s my father’s latest redundancy led to selling their house and investing in a shop with a flat above. They were challenging times and he also took on a factory night shift to make ends meet.  When he gave up the shop they moved into a council flat as my mother was classed as a key worker. 

After my father’s death in 1994 she moved into my brother’s house, contributing a substantial amount of her savings to its renovation. Her living arrangements were unsatisfactory and she was on the point of leaving at least twice before she finally left to move into a sheltered scheme. During this time she maintained her independence travelling regularly and keeping in contact with friends and family. When she got arthritis and became less mobile the accommodation she had chosen became less suitable. She had little in common with other residents and became anxious suffering from panic attacks and showed early signs of dementia. She had a variety of interests and family who to varying degrees responded to her changing circumstances. We could have done better but we were there for her some of the time.

In my experience the assumption that ethnic minorities provide better support to their older relatives is questionable, family attitudes vary. As I grow older I hope that this is not the end of life experience that I have.

Reasons for racial inequality

Housing experiences may reflect racial exclusion by local housing authorities, private landlords and neighbours, as well as more recent experiences of stigmatisation, gentrification and displacement.  The unequal distribution of property types between ethnic groups reflects the patterns of cumulative disadvantage, possibly due to the concentration of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups in urban areas. There are higher levels of housing deprivation for Bangladeshi and Black African people living in terraced houses and flats, and Pakistani people living in terraced houses. This may be due to lower incomes, which have restricted the ability of some to improve their housing conditions.

Access to affordable housing for those who do not own their home seems to be more difficult for BAME people. There is an increasing proportion of BAME groups living in the private rented sector. Rental tenures, both social and private, are associated with higher levels of housing deprivation than ownership.

The lower rates of home ownership for BAME groups aged 50-64 compared to those aged 65 and over suggest that levels of housing deprivation will increase over time.

Employment status affects older people, with those in routine jobs or unemployed more likely to experience housing deprivation.  The percentage of BAME people in routine jobs or unemployed experiencing housing deprivation have been found to be higher than for White British[1], notably the White Other[2], Bangladeshi and Black African groups. BAME groups who were economically active experienced more housing deprivation compared to those who were retired or economically inactive. This might reflect the financial support available to some, e.g. disability, sickness or caring responsibilities where housing costs are covered by benefits enabling people to access more suitable accommodation.

The need for a local response

Living with a partner mitigates the effect of housing deprivation for Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi older people, whilst the protective effect for White Other people is no longer apparent for those aged 65 or over. People living by themselves are more likely to be at risk of social isolation and an understanding of this aspect of the local population can inform successful interventions.

The proportion of older people from different ethnic groups born in the UK, and the date they came to the UK, is variable, reflecting different waves of migration. More recent arrivals experience much higher levels of housing deprivation. The complexity of these stories is masked by the inadequacy of the data available at national level. The White Other and Black African ethnic categories are too broad to make meaningful inferences whilst all ethnic groups may include returning migrants with citizenship rights. At a local level, the complexity of these stories needs to be unpicked to enable meaningful policy interventions.

As BAME people age the need for adaptations, additional care and support to enable them to live independently will grow.  The extent to which their needs can be met within existing accommodation is likely to be limited given the levels of housing deprivation that many older BAME people experience. 

We need a better understanding at local level of how housing associations have successfully provided appropriate accommodation and services to meet the needs of older BAME people.

BAME older people are concentrated in urban areas in and around London and major cities.  Some urban areas have a complex demography of ethnic ageing to consider as they develop policy and interventions to meet their local population needs.

Local authorities are responsible for meeting the housing needs of their residents.  Understanding the needs of the ageing ethnic minority populations should be an urgent priority.


Nigel de Noronha is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham.

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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

[1] Race Equality Foundation and Housing Learning and Improvement Network brief Housing and the older ethnic minority population in England.

[2] White Other is a classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom to describe people who self-identify as white persons who are not of the English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish ethnic grouping.