Finding home through friendship – migrants meet mature Kiwis

By Jennifer Little

 It could be any multi-generational family gathering in a suburban lounge: cups of tea; people sharing their holiday snaps; talking about how their week has been. Toddlers on the floor at the feet of the elderly in armchairs, playing with toys or reading colourful picture books. Hugs; laughter; swapping recipes and books.

The weekly Friday get-together at Jean Sandel Retirement Village on New Plymouth’s outskirts represents a special kind of ‘family’ for those present. This one is comprised of migrants new to New Plymouth from all over the world – Africa, Asia, South America, Europe – who come to spend time with their new friends, the residents of Jean Sandel.

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It’s a beautifully reciprocal relationship for all. The elderly residents – many of whom may not see their own families too often – get to meet and befriend people from diverse nationalities. Less mobile than they once were and inhabiting a smaller world now, they have rich memories of travel or living abroad, and are still genuinely interested to learn

By Jennifer Little

 It could be any multi-generational family gathering in a suburban lounge: cups of tea; people sharing their holiday snaps; talking about how their week has been. Toddlers on the floor at the feet of the elderly in armchairs, playing with toys or reading colourful picture books. Hugs; laughter; swapping recipes and books.

The weekly Friday get-together at Jean Sandel Retirement Village on New Plymouth’s outskirts represents a special kind of ‘family’ for those present. This one is comprised of migrants new to New Plymouth from all over the world – Africa, Asia, South America, Europe – who come to spend time with their new friends, the residents of Jean Sandel.

 

It’s a beautifully reciprocal relationship for all. The elderly residents – many of whom may not see their own families too often – get to meet and befriend people from diverse nationalities. Less mobile than they once were and inhabiting a smaller world now, they have rich memories of travel or living abroad, and are still genuinely interested to learn about other cultures and different lives through a lively one-to-one yarn and sharing a laugh. Above all, they have the time, interest and patience.

“And newcomers from faraway places, including Japan, India, France, Zimbabwe, and Russia most recently, are instantly welcomed. They relish the relaxed conversations that can be vital for helping them improve their English and consequently enabling them to feel more settled, comfortable and accepted,” says Michelle Bent, who instigated the project. “Through these regular, friendly, and informal interactions, they find out more about their adopted country and how people think. And for those with children, the connection with older people helps fulfil the role of grandparents they left behind,” Michelle explains.

In the beginning

The idea was hatched some five years ago when Australian-born Michelle, who settled in New Plymouth in 1996, came up with the idea of introducing her aunt – then a resident at Jean Sandel – with a new migrant she’d met and who was seeking friendship and conversation. Her aunt, Maureen Malone, was widely travelled and loved the idea of befriending someone from Croatia. Unfortunately, that beloved aunt died before the meeting could take place. But it planted the germ of a bigger idea.

With a background in resettling new arrivals and experience working with New Plymouth’s migrant community, Michelle observed an unmet need among these two groups – elderly rest home residents lacking companionship, and new migrants in need of friendship and colloquial conversation. She figured that finding a way to connect the two could offer a win-win for both. So, she approached the management of the retirement village and kicked off the meetings, aided by small ads in the local weekly press inviting new residents.

“It has really changed lives,” says Michelle, sharing anecdotes of deep, lasting friendships forged between migrants and residents. “They celebrate birthdays, weddings, and the arrival of babies. We also celebrate Christmas and other festive occasions.”

In July 2019, the activities coordinator at Jean Sandel asked if the group would like to give a presentation for the residents about each of their home countries. Those who were willing, dressed in their national costumes and talked about their customs and culture, some adding music and dance.

“We had about 200 or so of the residents – way more than just the usual group. They absolutely loved it,” says Michelle. “For migrants who are still coming to grips with the language, presenting to a huge crowd like that was a huge accomplishment!”

Cheryl Mudawarima embracing her friend, Jean Sandel Retirement Village resident Kath Chamberlain.

Zimbabwean Cheryl Nomvula Mudawarima, who has been part of the Friday gatherings from the outset and who hosts the Cool African Groove two-hour show on Access Radio every Friday night, recalls the fun of sharing her culture through a presentation. She had the room riveted as she demo-ed foot-tapping and hip-shaking African dance moves, she recalls with glee.

Greeting each other with warm hugs is a key ritual for the start of the meeting, Michelle says. “Older people often don’t get hugged and they’re missing out on basic human connection.”

Yvonne Boyes and Kath Chamberlain both live independently in village apartments.  Yvonne is one of the founding members of the group, with Kath a more recent arrival, having moved up from Invercargill to be closer to family. Both are clearly in their element surrounded by their cosmopolitan friends, judging by the warmth and intensity of their conversations. Kath is showing Cheryl photos of her recent trip to the South Island for a family wedding, and Cheryl tells Kath about how her son and daughter are doing.

Cheryl says her friendships at Jean Sandel are refreshing and enriching. She finds that elderly people tend to be more accepting and open. Yvonne, an avid reader and booklover, enjoys buying and sharing books with the youngsters who attend with their mums.

Bill Snowdon, a former missionary worker in Vanuatu, Fiji, India, and the Philippines, has plenty of experience living in other cultures and says he loves seeing people of different backgrounds coming together to share their lives at the Friday meetings.

Lockdown lifeline

 When the country went into lockdown amid the global pandemic last year, the weekly meetings at Jean Sandel had to pause as rest homes everywhere followed strict protocols to ensure vulnerable elderly residents were not exposed to the deadly COVID-19 virus. “But the Friday group friendships and communication continued with people talking via phones and Zoom, ensuring that members didn’t feel lonely or isolated,” says Michelle.

She has witnessed the power of friendship and its many spinoffs – building a sense of purpose, identity, and belonging through mutually beneficial communication and companionship for both new migrants and rest home residents. She would love to see the concept replicated more widely in other facilities for the aged.

“The original concept was to provide a safe space for new migrants to practise their spoken English,” she says. “The group definitely delivers on that, but in reality, it’s evolved into something much more significant.

“When you move countries, you’re also leaving your parents and older relatives behind.  The usual way of making friends is through your children, or your work, or sports clubs. But those friends will tend to be of a similar age. We all need seniors in our lives – they’re the ones who have ‘been there, done that,’ and are pretty relaxed and accepting. We’re an extremely diverse bunch, but it definitely feels like family!”