The language barriers

Migrant communities and their difficulty accessing aged care in Australia

Letty Papadopoulos
Photo: Madi Chwasta

Although Letty was born in Greece, she doesn’t see herself living in a Greek speaking nursing home.

“For me English is the main language now, so it doesn’t bother me where I go,” she said.

Letty (R) with her family in Greece
Photo: with permission from Letty Papadopoulos

She is 73 and has spent most of her life in Australia, having migrated from the north of Greece in the mid-50s when she was eight years old.

She fastidiously learned English when she arrived in Melbourne, and has spoken it with her family and friends for most of her life.

But as she gets older, she’s conscious this may change.

If she develops dementia, she may lose her ability to speak the language.

“My mum has dementia and now only speaks Greek and Macedonian,” she said.

“Because I’ve spoken English most of my life, I think it might be different for me.”

But this may not be the case.

Fronditha Care Operations Manager Jim Scantsonihas said the affect of dementia on someone who was multilingual was a “unique” phenomenon.

Jim Scantsonihas
Photo: with permission from Jim Scantsonihas

“What happens is the person who suffers from dementia reverts back to their native tongue and loses the skill of the of the second language,” he said.

He said this posed a problem for aged care services in Australia, as many were not equipped to handle non-English speakers.

This concern lead to the creation of Fronditha, a nursing home for Greek speaking Australians.

It was started 40 years ago by a group of doctors and members of the Greek community who foresaw the need for a culturally specific aged care service after witnessing the impact dementia had on ageing migrants.

“That’s how the doctors came about – they would treat these people and could see the difficulties lying ahead,” he said.

The Greek diaspora is one of the oldest in Australia – the median age of the population was just over 72 in 2018.

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It is also one of the largest. In the same year, there were just over 107,000 people who spoke Greek at home, making the language the third most spoken in Australia after Mandarin and English.

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Dementia, a brain condition which impacts the completion of everyday tasks, also significantly impacts ageing Australians. It was the second leading cause of death for people over 85 in 2018.

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Other than caring for Greek migrants with dementia, Mr Scantsonihas said Fronditha catered for migrants who’s children were unable to care for them.

“People were ageing, but the sons and the daughters wanted to have their own families and found it difficult to be able to look after their parents,” he said.

“So having that option of going into residential care – where they knew that person would be cared for and wouldn’t feel isolated because no-one spoke the language – was important too.”

For these reasons, Fronditha has grown exponentially. Starting with 60 beds, the organisation is now home to hundreds of people in four locations around Melbourne, with a waiting list of over 100.

Mr Scantsonihas said the the staff do everything they can to create an environment that is as familiar as possible, through playing Greek music, celebrating Greek holidays, and serving Greek food.

“We just bring in the different things that might bring back that sort of connection to their homeland, whether it’s prints on the wall, or Greek television and radio playing in the background,” he said.

Resident with nurse at Fronditha
Photo: with permission from Jim Scantsonihas

“We even think about the loudness of the place because as you know, Greeks are generally loud when they speak,

“All that stuff makes a big difference.”

Although Mr Scantsonihas predicts the number of Greek immigrants accessing their services will peak in 2025, he does not believe the organisation will lose relevance as the population ages.

He believes Fronditha will become a leader in individualised aged care for all migrant populations, which he is already beginning to see.

“We have had an Italian man at one of our facilities, a Serbian man in another, and we also had someone at Clayton who was local and needed urgent help, and they were from an Anglo-Saxon background,” he said.

“That’s no problem with us.”

But Foundation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia Chairperson Mary Patetsos said while Fronditha offers excellent support for Greek migrants, these services were not accessible for everyone in the community.

Mary Patetsos
Photo: with permission from Mary Patetsos

“Many Greek people have relatives who are in mainstream nursing homes because of geography.” 

“You can’t have a nursing home like Fronditha in every suburb in Australia.”

She also said these specific services were often too expensive for people on a pension, which has lead to many elderly Greek Australians living in mainstream nursing homes where they were unable to communicate with the people taking care of them.

“Everything that happens to us happens through a process of communication, so if we’re unable to tell people what we need and what we feel, or about our medical condition or disability that needs to be managed, it can be dire.” 

She said her organisation was committed to fighting for aged care that accommodated the communication needs of all culturally diverse Australians.

“It’s really important is that there’s a recognition of the whole person, so they’re able to take account the language, culture, spirituality and the migration experience,” she said.

She said there have been some recognition of this in the ongoing Aged Care Royal Commission, where her organisation presented evidence twice. It is the first commission that has allowed submissions in languages other than English.

“That was a massive breakthrough and helps people who struggle with reading and writing [in English],” she said.  

Letty (R) and her cousin in Greece
Photo: with permission from Letty Papadopoulos

Ms Patetsos said her organisation is calling for the federal government to allocate more funds to non-English speaking pensioners and to mainstream nursing homes for interpretation services.

“We understand that resources are slim, but if you’re in a nursing home and you cannot be understood, and you cannot communicate your needs, and no one is doing anything about that, it’s a really disadvantageous position for 30 per cent of the population to be in, to have worked in Australia for 70 years,” she said.

“They’ve got skin in the game here, but they’ve put a lot in.”

Although Ms Patetsos says there is a long way to go, Letty remains positive her future will be comfortable, just as she did nearly 70 years ago when she arrived in Australia.

“There was a lot of optimism when we were young, Australia was the lucky country”

“I think it still is actually.”

Letty describing her life in Greece, her arrival in Australia, and her current experiences with the Greek and Macedonian migrant groups in Melbourne.

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