Learning lessons from gypsy roma travellers

Vanessa Heaslip

01 / 6 / 2016 3.30pm

Dr Vanessa Heaslip is a principal academic in the Department of Nursing and Clinical Sciences at Bournemouth University. She has a keen interest in exploring marginalised groups who experience inequity of access to statutory services. 

Gypsy Roma Travellers (GRT) seem to attract polarised views within society. For some they are seen in negative, derogatory ways, for others a mystical romantised figure… for me, they are neither, but simply ‘just human’ like the rest of us. There are good, bad and indifferent within the community just as there are within the settled community.

Much has been written about this community with regards to their poorer health outcomes, and it is true, they have higher levels of both morbidity/mortality than the general population. Through my work I have had the opportunity to meet many families and to visit many GRT sites and in doing so learnt many things, some of which I wanted to share with you.

Bizarrely, GRT are often thought of as dirty and unclean yet visiting their homes made me feel ashamed about the cleanliness of my own home. The women in these families took such pride in their homes and their surroundings, and as such their homes were immaculately clean. The women were ingenious, can you imagine trying to hide christmas presents from a large family in a caravan, yet they managed, their homes and their families were at the centre of their world.

The women I met took such pride in being mothers and creating a home full of love and warmth for their children. Family is central to many GRT communities and often there are large extended families together supporting each other.  When visiting I would often see four generations together on a site, sharing knowledge and providing support. This support I witnessed was at both ends of the spectrum; for new mothers as well as those caring for family at the end of their lives. These events were shared within the wider community and people were willing to lend a hand and support each other. Thinking about my own community, sadly we do not have this bond, apart from my immediate neighbours I don’t really know anyone else on my street, do you... on yours? Yet, within GRT communities there is a sense of belonging, being part of a larger family that transcends both blood and marriage, due to a shared cultural history. If I am honest, part of me wished we had aspects of this belonging in my own community, and I wonder if we did, would we continue to hear about isolated older people being alone.

Being there and seeing this, really helped me to understand why so many GRT come to be with their family when they are in hospital. This is their norm, their way of being, which sadly we have lost. Whilst it was noisy, boisterous and loud I didn’t feel threatened, but safe and protected and maybe that is what the community feel when they are surrounded by their own. I do believe, that we as healthcare professionals have to respect this way of being, and identify ways to enable this to occur when GRT are in hospital.

Vanessa can be contacted on vheaslip@bournemouth.ac.uk and on Twitter @HeaslipVanessa.

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