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Polish Elders 'Keep Things Happening' to Stay Vital

Nowy Dziennik Polish Daily News, News Feature, Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska Posted: Jul 02, 2009

Often lonely, elderly immigrants would like to get involved in the community life. But sometimes its not easy, especially without language skills.

Helena Przybylska, age 71, has been busy for as long as she can remember. She lost her husband when she was young and had to raise their children by herself. Life remained tough for her after she immigratied to the United States. But she always thought its better to have too much work, than not enough.

Przybylska was forced to slow down when at the age of 58 she had a heart attack. She was not able to return to work, but could not sit at home either.

Older people dont know what to do with themselves, she said.I tried to read, watch TV, listen to the radio But when you are staying at home, its difficult to fill all your time.

A year ago Przybylska came across an ad saying that the Reformed Church on Milton Street in Greenpoint, a predominantly Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she lives, was looking for bilingual volunteers to help at its soup kitchen and food pantry.

She called and they accepted her. Soon after that she also joined the ProLife Homeless, a group that helps homeless Polish people.

I have a pacemaker and arthritis. But I want to help others as long as my health will allow me, said Helena, who also assists her friends as an interpreter when they need to go for an appointment at the Social Security Administrations office or to pick up Food Stamps. I only ask them to pay the subway fare for me.

Helena speaks English well. But for many elderly immigrants, especially those who do not reside in their ethnic neighborhoods, the language barrier makes it impossible to get involved in the affairs of their surrounding world.

English-language proficiency is a concern for a growing number of the U.S. residents. The foreign-born population in the United States increased by 57 percent between 1990 and 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Moreover, the number of adults ages 65 or older is projected to more than double by 2030. And by 2050, minority elders will comprise more than 40 percent of the U.S. older adult population.

If these people were not able to participate in lives of their community, it would be a waste of human potential. They could be a great asset for their neighborhoods, said Patience Lehrman, director of Project SHINE, a program of the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University in Philadelphia. She spoke at the AARP Diversity Conference in Chicago in June.

Project SHINE, established in 1997, aims among other goals to get elders engaged in life of their local communities.

Last fall the project released its Community Treasures (http://projectshine.org/) study on why and how immigrant elders contribute to their families and communities. Lehrman said they conducted interviews with 99 immigrant elders from seven major ethnolinguistic groups: Latino, Chinese, Vietnamese, African and others.

Project SHINEs researchers defined civic engagement broadly to include both formal and informal volunteer roles. Most commonly interviewees were already engaged in a variety of activities, usually involving their families, if their members also reside in the U.S. For some this could mean becoming involved in a grandchilds school.

However, there is a much wider variety of options for seniors residing in ethnic neighborhoods where they can communicate in their native language in social centers or religious institutions. This allows elders who do not speak English to communicate with other seniors, but also to develop their interests and spend time in many interesting ways.

"Older immigrants' civic engagement activities tend to be carried out in their own ethnic communities, where they feel comfortable, have a sense of ownership, and want to address urgent needs, the SHINE report says.
Examples included caring for sick neighbors, organizing the community to help new immigrants, and mediating family and community conflicts.

Elders from Greenpoint, many of whom dont speak English very well, have a quite comfortable situation they are surrounded by Polish doctors' offices, churches and stores.

They also can attend Krakus Senior Club at the Polish and Slavic Center. Krakus, where approximately 120-130 mostly Polish seniors come everyday, serves not only as a lunchroom, but also as sort of a cultural center where older people can spend time in an organized way.

We are going on trips together; we have our own theatre group, a library and a music band. Moreover, once a year we organize the so called seniors' artistic salon, and once a month we have a birthday party, Janusz Skowron, who has been organizing events for seniors at Krakus for the last eight years.

Aiming to develop various interests among members of his group, Skowron organized a computer class earlier this year.

"I wanted to show them what can be done with the Internet, how to send e-mails, etcetera," he said. "I was hoping to show them that this is a wonderful window to the world. There were 50-60 people present during each class. Moreover, a dozen or so of them bought laptops later on.

To Skowron it is a clear sign that elders have a great curiosity to learn new things and that with age they are not loosing interest in the world. Quite the contrary: If possible, they want to broaden their minds.

At Krakus seniors can also learn English and attend citizenship classes.

Patience Lehrman of SHINE underlines that mastering English and becoming an American citizen opens new political levels of civic participation for seniors.

These people are usually very grateful for an opportunity of living in this country, and they would like to show it somehow, Lehrman observed.

One of SHINEs national initiatives aims to provide seniors opportunities to interact with students from local colleges and universities, who help prepare the elders for citizenship tests and teach them English.

Improving their English proficiency helps seniors function better on a daily basis, for example during doctors visit, at the pharmacy or while shopping.

To date students from 25 schools have articipated in the project and helped 36 000 elderly immigrants from 18 U.S. cities.

At Krakus, seniors are also encouraged to participate in political life. For example, they participate in meetings with politicians, both American and Polish.

We have city councilmen, state senators and assemblymen coming here," said Skowron. "They want seniors to get to know them and hope they will vote for them later. Some of our seniors indeed participate in American election process. And certainly they do cast their votes in local election for Polish-American institutions located in Greenpoint, such as the Polish and Slavic Center or the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union.

To many elders, senior centers are the first and foremost places where they meet friends, spend time together and even develop their passions. This is the case of Tadeusz Zajac, 65.

Zajac started to attend Krakus regularly five years ago when he retired after working for many years in a local factory. Immediately he founded Krakus Chronicle, where he takes notes of all important events happening at the senior club.

Also in charge of the Krakus library, which currently holds at least a few thousands volumes, he noted, I have always liked to read.

Tadeusz joked that because he comes to Krakus for four hours everyday it is like a job for him, although he is already retired.

I cant imagine living without it, Tadeusz said, whose children are grown-ups already. His wife often joins him at Krakus, as well.

He also see a mission in what he does: to encourage seniors to read more. Now everybody watches TV or checks the Internet. But I think books stimulate the brain best. I have 20-year-long plans for this library, he declared.

Tadeusz is also very proud to say that his library lends approximately 1000 books a year.

Writing a chronicle also became part of his every day routine. Days when there is nothing to chronicle make me feel empty inside," Tadeusz stated. "Things have to keep happening. That makes people want to live.

Related articles:

Riding the Rail Past 60: Older Americans Pass on Retirement

Report Challenges Negative Image of Immigrant Elders

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