Home' Australian Ageing Agenda : AAA Jan-Feb 2015 Contents Learning a new language is a standard feature of most
primary and secondary schools but it is not so common
in aged care.
However, for Kelly Piessens, a recreational activities
officer at a Catholic Healthcare facility in the Illawarra
region of NSW, language lessons have become part of her day.
Piessens works mostly with immigrant residents with high
care needs. She tweeted last October about the mutual benefit
arising from the language exchange.
"Learning Macedonian from someone with dementia. She
is a very patient teacher. We both get something out of it,"
wrote Piessens, who also added the hashtags #agedcare and
#empowerment to the tweet.
Lessons from her Macedonian teacher came about by chance,
"One of the residents with good English skills said something
to me in Macedonian one day. I said to her 'Could you say that
in English? I can't speak Macedonian' and she said 'if I can learn
English you can learn Macedonian," Piessens explains.
"I can't argue with that. There is no comeback."
The lady used the crochet blanket with different coloured
squares on lap to teach Piessens the colours.
"She was telling me the colour of the squares in Macedonian
then in English and waiting for me to repeat it. Rather than her
getting agitated because of her dementia at that time of the day it
actually kept her calm," Piessens says.
More than half of Kelly's 20 clients have a non-English speaking
background -- six speak Macedonian and other first languages
include Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Croatian, and Vietnamese.
The language barrier is always present and it was daunting at
first, Piessens says. She began by putting a translator app on her
smartphone to learn simple things and other exchanges include
residents teaching Kelly numbers during card games, she says.
"I like the fact that they are here and they are enjoying it.
They are still engaged. They are still having fun with it. When
they laugh when I get the word wrong, that is funny," she says.
Piessens says her organisation welcomes residents from all
backgrounds and promotes programs staff can adapt to suit
individual residents and celebrate different cultures.
She is now using the translator app to create simple find-a-
word puzzles in Macedonian, Portuguese and Italian languages.
It is good for their memory and they also really enjoy having
something in her own language, she says.
Aged care from all angles
Learning Macedonian from a
resident with dementia brings
mutual benefit to both teacher
and student, recreational
officer Kelly Piessens tells
Catholic Healthcare resident Naumka
Kovaceska with recreational activities
officer Kelly Piessens.
Piessens has been in the role since August 2013, but started at
the facility as a cleaner. Following 10 years providing community-
based domestic assistance, Piessens was looking for a change
from driving around.
When the casual cleaner position was coming to an end, she
transitioned into this new role at the behest of management.
Piessens says she thinks she has landed in the right place and is
thankful for the opportunity. She is currently undertaking a Cert
IV in Leisure in Health and already holds a Cert IV and Diploma
in Community Services.
Her typical work day begins with putting a loaf of bread on
with the residents "so they have fresh bread with their lunch
every day" and usually involves an exercise program, such as
physical exercises or a ball game, some gardening work in the
purpose built vegetable garden, and art and craft among other
things, she says.
The bread-making and vegetable garden stem from a program
Piessens runs, which she originally set up for the Macedonian
residents to get them engaged and feel good about themselves.
The program, which was nominated for a 2014 Better Practice
Award, also includes morning and afternoon teas with traditional
Macedonian food, performances from a local Macedonian dance
groups, and the "houseproud" residents helping around the home
such as setting the table at meal times, Piessens says.
In addition to language, Piessens says supporting residents
with high care needs is another challenge that requires modifying
activities to suit the ability of everyone in the group.
Although there are challenges aside, Piessens says she doesn't
find the job stressful. She puts that down to being good at switching
off and doing things to stay relaxed such as fishing and kayaking.
"I don't know whether it's because I do that as a rule and
because I have always done that or whether it's not stressful
because I enjoy it."
Piessens describes herself as outdoorsy -- she is going
shark fishing the following day -- and also likes to hold activities
with residents outside, such as in the garden or at a large
Overall, she says she feels lucky to be working in such a
supportive environment that allows her to be creative and try
new things for residents.
"It makes a difference to the staff as well. You can put
yourself out there. You can come up with this idea and try it
and see what happens." n
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