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Helping hand for Gravesend's elderly

PUBLISHED: 10:35 24 October 2012

Shaminder Bedi

Shaminder Bedi

Archant

Shaminder Bedi has spent decades helping ethnic minorities integrate into society but, as he tells Anna Dubuis, things are changing

Community worker Shaminder Bedi knows what it is like to feel isolated.

“The day I arrived in England my father sent me into a shop to ask for some bread. He taught me to say the words ‘One bread please’,” he remembers.

“I walked into the shop, rehearsing the words in my head. I had to queue, which was new to me, and when it was my turn I blurted out ‘one bread’ and the shopkeeper said ‘you must say please!’”

As an 11-year-old from India, Shaminder wanted to fit in quickly and within a few months he had grasped the language and was helping other migrants with translation.

Ever since, he has helped ethnic minority communities integrate into British society.

One group he particularly felt was left out was the elderly Asian community.

“Twenty years ago there weren’t many things happening for Asian communities in this area. I could go anywhere because I spoke good English but they were always at home. These people didn’t have the choice to go anywhere because of the language barriers and because it was often not culturally appropriate.”

So Shaminder, known as “Uncle Shammi” to many, took it upon himself to set up a day care centre that met the needs of these people.

In partnership with Gravesend’s Gurdwara – the Sikh temple – he set up the Guru Nanak centre in Gravesend and the Milan centre in Dartford. The Gravesend centre has been in Khalsa Avenue for the past four years. Within it, there are two lounge areas, separated for men and women, where people can pray, watch television, sit and chat, as well as a kitchen and dining areas.

Members take part in artwork, musical therapy and chair exercise classes. They learn healthy cooking practices, often go on day trips and have talks where they learn about health issues such as dementia.

He believes the day centres are a fundamental part of keeping people socially active and physically well. “If we have social centres like this we can keep people in the community a lot longer and they will be healthier,” he says.

But after almost 20 years, his position at the day centres has fallen victim to the public sector funding cuts.

Last week he spent his final week at the Guru Nanak centre. He said: “It is like putting your baby to rest. It feels a big thing in your heart that you are not part of it any more.”

But he is not the only one to suffer. Membership at the centres, once free, is now means tested and many have dropped out after being asked to pay.

Shaminder said: “We used to have 150 here and 100 in Dartford on our books but we have lost 50 people in each.

“It is sad because when we first started this centre, people used to sit on the benches in the Community Square and we took them in, but now they are back there.”

Now taking early retirement, Shaminder is heading off for a long holiday and expects he will be back volunteering in the community before long.

Jagdev Singh Virdee who has worked alongside him over the year, said: “It is a big loss for us. The ethos has been built around Shammi’s vision. He was the driving force behind everything here.”

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