Language crisis confronts aging CALD communities

In retirement, Italian immigrant Michele Caputo was independent, healthy and happy.

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Regular catch ups with family and friends and tending a veggie garden kept him busy and productive.

When diagnosed with dementia, Mr Caputo was forced to live in a nursing home and the condition caused him to lose his English language skills and he regressed to his native Italian.

According to his son Joe, the condition worsened when Mr Caputo was unable to communicate with the predominantly English speaking carers at the facility.

“The only way we kept him there was for my sister – my younger sister to call in virtually every day and be with him and feed him virtually every day – and that went on until he passed away,” he said.

Many aged care facilities, like Fronditha Care in Melbourne, go to significant lengths to provide suitable language and cultural care for predominantly Greek residents.

“It’s everything to people,” said Fronditha Chief Executive George Lekakis. “It’s cultural identity and the language that they can communicate with.”

The facility even provides employment opportunities for Greek aged-care workers. Nurse Christina Marko left Greece six years ago to train in Australia and says language is a crucial factor in aged care

“Once they have dementia they revert to the mother tongue so it’s the only language they can communicate and express themselves,” she Marko said.

And the residents appreciate the ability to communicate. 78-year old Dorothy Ralabokis arrived in Australia in the late 1960s and tried her best to learn English. But working in a factory with fellow Greek immigrants meant advancement was slow. She now loves interacting in her mother tongue at Fonditha.

“I like it because I feel I understand and I feel happy – because talk my language to understand everything,” she said.

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But Joe Caputo, who heads the Federation of Ethnic Communities of Australia, said it was time the government directed more planning and resources to culturally and linguistically appropriate care.

“Because by 2030, 30 per cent of our aged people will be from non-English speaking backgrounds,” he said.

John Kelly, Chief Executive Officer of Aged and Community Services Australia agreed.

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“I think it’s just the size of the demographic that’s the challenge,” he said. “We can’t take our eye off the ball.”

With five facilities under his control, George Lekakis knows too well the importance of a sound strategy.

The government said it recognised the need to cater for the diversity of older Australians.

It released a statement saying significant funding has been introduced for aging CALD communities, including improved training and 2000 new placements in culturally appropriate environments.

A full version of the statement from the spokesperson for the Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ken Wyatt can be found here.

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