The letters to children aged between seven and 14 years are written in Polish and cover many topics, but mostly Mr Swistak answers their queries about life – such as whether it’s OK as a little girl to slam a door on a family member.
”No, it’s not nice to slam the door on anyone,” he tells his young correspondent.
People do not prepare themselves for old age, it’s essential they become interested in something.
The intergenerational letter exchange program was launched by Australian Multicultural Community Services during the pandemic as a part of its Seniors Wisdom and the Mobile Information Hub project (SWAMIH).
Mr Swistak said the letters are one way – he also paints, writes poetry and composes music – to stay mentally healthy.
”People do not prepare themselves for old age, it’s essential they become interested in something. Some of those people don’t even know they have the ability or talent to do something because they’ve never tried,” he says.
The stay-at-home lockdown restrictions have exacerbated the loneliness for many elderly Victorians, particularly for those culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD).
At the age of 20, Mr Swistak moved to Australia in the wake of World War II having survived the Dachau concentration camp where he was imprisoned as a member of the Polish resistance. His father and brother were killed at the camp.
”I came to Australia and started to feel very lonely, I was told not to speak Polish, no one could understand me, so I had to learn English. I also wanted to belong to something,” he says.
Project officer Ewa Lenartowicz says the letter program aims to engage and reduce social isolation for CALD seniors.
”Establishing a connection and belonging to the local cultural community is important for the wellbeing of seniors,” she says.
The program connects seniors with children, mostly born in Australia, who are learning to speak their parents’ language. With more than 55 seniors and 66 volunteers, the program offers more than 10 languages, such as English, Polish, Arabic, Macedonian, Sri Lankan and Indonesian.
Mrs Lenartowicz says language barriers and cultural differences can be challenging for many cultural and linguistic diverse seniors.
”They migrated to Australia because of various life circumstances. Very often their relatives and loved ones live in other countries and as they age they lose their English-language abilities. Some of the CALD seniors never have a chance to learn English,” she says.
According to the Australian Institute of Health, one in three Australians aged over 65 were born overseas, with a majority born in non-English-speaking countries.
The interim findings of the 2019 Royal Commission into Aged Care revealed that aged care facilities had not been meeting the requirements of culturally and linguistically diverse seniors.
Mother of nine-year-old twins Eren and Deniz, Magdalena Sahingoez, says her children were introduced to the letter program through Edmund Strzelecki Melbourne Polish School.
”I think it’s beautiful. At the Polish school they learn about the culture, tradition and the language, and this is an additional experience for them.
”They started learning how to write a letter, how to address it, because these days it’s not something regular they learn at school,” she says.
Deniz says the elderly have become more isolated during the pandemic and these letters are important to them.
”People can’t visit them that often, I know that the elderly people really need someone to talk to because they are alone,” he says.
Eren says he was the first student to receive a letter back from one of the seniors.
”I thought, ‘Yay, I got the letter.’ I waited so long, I usually don’t get mail from anybody,” he says.