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Identity, clothing and BAME communities

This step explores how clothing and cloth can help to preserve and communicate a sense of identity in BAME communities in care homes.
Photograph of a multicoloured woven West African textile
© UCA Textiles Collection at Farnham, BA (Hons) Textiles for Fashion & Interiors

Written by Ezinma Mbonu, Senior Lecturer, Fashion Design BA (Hons), University for the Creative Arts

An ageing population in the UK now more than ever includes a significant increase of people in their seventies and eighties from black and Asian minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

In most cases these elders are first generation migrants from the Commonwealth who came to the UK between the 1950s and 70s. Many of these elders are now reaching the age where the possibility of developing a dementia is significantly raised1. Compared to 2011 figures, predictions for 2051 are expected to show close to a seven­fold increase within the BAME communities, which stands in stark contrast to just over a twofold increase within the general population for the UK2. This poses the question, how ready are care homes for this change in their resident population?

As symptoms of dementia develop there can be a tendency for long-term memories to supersede more recent ones – this is dependent on the individual and the type of dementia. Amongst the BAME communities these memories can encapsulate a wide range of phenomena, such as place of birth, mother-tongue language, migration route, reason for and age of migration, the cultural experiences of the individual as well as their community in the host country. It is also important to consider the ‘super diversity’3 of the BAME communities. The ability to acknowledge and respond to cultural differences within ethnic groups and also on an individual level is necessary to ensure a person-centred care approach4 5.

The implications in care home settings that offer reminiscence and other activities may therefore need to be looked at more closely. Are the approaches inclusive enough? Do they engage residents from BAME communities?
The life story of an individual is one way of understanding who they are and their sense of self. Life stories can also be understood through dress narratives. Dress narratives are stories that can materialise from the touch of cloth, an outfit in a photograph, clothes that were worn, clothes that are being worn, favourite colours and much more. For first generation BAME migrants dress can be of particular importance, embedded in complex identities and, possibly, providing a sense of continuity with the place of origin. A life cycle of touching, engaging and interacting with cloth can contribute to our understanding of ourselves.
The role of touch is one way of exploring new possibilities in relation to the personhood of people living with dementia; they never stop being able to feel (in all senses of the word) or to experience touch. Touch as a therapeutic intervention has the potential to break down barriers when engaging with individuals living with a dementia, who are aphasic or have reverted to their mother-tongue language.
In care homes, there is often insufficient opportunity to explore the many aspects of touch. Although there may be access to activity cushions, sensory blankets, and muffs, these sensory items tend to reduce a lifetime’s experience of touch to childlike interactions in a particular geographical location. In contrast, meaningful and familiar tactile articles that are relevant to a resident can help to maintain their dignity and encourage alternative ways of engaging. Through exploring cloth from garments, the repertoire of meaningful textiles and touch experiences can be widened significantly. This can help to shape tactile interventions that are relevant and relatable, and can thereby improve a sense of well-being. Meaningful “touch lowers stress, builds morale, and produces triumphs”6.
Sensory and emotional associations are integral to dress narratives7. The touch of cloth has the possibility of releasing a lifetime of memories – if the textile is meaningful. A resident might not easily engage with a piece of knitted acrylic wool but might be able to engage with a piece of embellished Indian sari silk with the light bouncing off the sequins, gold thread or mica mirrors – evocative of an another time and place. Additionally, the stiff, glossy, crisp fabric that rustles as if it was wrapping paper might conjure up memories of meticulously perfecting your head wrap for a wedding, festival or naming ceremony.


  1. Warner, J., Milne, A. and Peet, J., 2010. My name is not dementia: Literature Review. London: Alzheimer’s Society.

  2. Alzheimer’s Society

  3. Moriatry, J., Sharif, N. and Robinson, J., 2011. Black and minority ethnic people with dementia and their access to support and services. London: Social Care Institute for Excellence.

  4. Greengross, S., Crouch, T., Abrahams, D., Detchant, W., Colville, O., Lloyd, S. and Jolly, J., 2013. Dementia does not discriminate: The experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. London: All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia.

  5. Kitwood, T., 1997. Dementia Reconsidered: the person comes first. 1st edn. Berkshire: Open University Press.

  6. Gopnik, A. (s.d.) ‘Feel Me: What the new science of touch says about ourselves’ In: The New Yorker. (Accessed on 16 February 2017).

© Ezinma Mbonu/ University for the Creative Arts
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Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

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