May 22, 2024

From Poland to Australia, Marek’s respite care career nurtured family connections

Marek personal story image 2
Marek Smalec (standing on the left) has left a lasting impression on AMCS respite group members following his retirement. [Supplied]

Family, in Polish, is rodzina. Marek Smalec found an extension of his rodzina at Australian Multicultural Community Services (AMCS) over his 14-year-long career in aged care. Now, just as he enters retirement, HelloCare shares his story. 

Marek’s journey into the aged care sector, where he wound up as AMCS’ Respite Group Team Leader, was far from traditional. He worked as a radio producer in his home country of Poland, tackling all kinds of stories as a journalist. 

During Marek’s radio career, he had been encouraged to take the plunge and shift into care services because he had personal experience in supporting his mum after she experienced a stroke, and also his mother-in-law who was bed-bound for many years. 

At that point, it just wasn’t the right time. He had to wait until new horizons opened up which happened when he immigrated to Australia. An opportunity then arose with AMCS, a Melbourne-based home care and community service provider that began supporting the senior Polish community in 1983.

“I never imagined I would be working in the aged care industry, when I was younger I thought working with older people was not the job for me,” Marek said.

With a background in caring for his family, including both parents who also made the move to Australia, Marek was quickly referred to AMCS. They recognised his skill set, even without formal training, and accepted his application. Training and certification to become a home care worker quickly followed. 

“It was something new for me, I discovered a new challenge in my life and it’s the best work I ever had,” Marek added.

Speaking to Marek, it’s easy to see why his incredible 14-year career was the best work he’s ever had; it doesn’t sound like it was a job. It was his passion.

There was heartache early on, though, as his mum passed away shortly after he arrived in Australia. While he had his dad to care for and his wife by his side, the rest of Marek’s family was in Poland. And so, the people he supported became an extension of his family, especially after he started managing AMCS’ Respite Program, alongside his wife.

“Fortunately it happened that I was working with my wife, Malgorzata [Margaret]. She was involved with AMCS first and was already in the group [I was the team leader of] with good skills as a nurse. It was a challenge for us but through these 12 years working together in a respite group it was a success,” he said.

“I was a boss in the group and she was a boss at home.”

Marek and Malgorzata
Marek and his wife Malgorzata immigrated to Australia from Poland and they wound up working together for over a decade at AMCS. [Supplied]

Marek worked hard to deliver the best possible care for Respite Group members and their carers. Not only does their team support people with a wide range of abilities or health conditions, but there are also Respite Groups targeted at seniors with a wide range of backgrounds including Eastern European, Sri Lankan and South Indian. 

These groups meet once a week, meaning they often see each other more often than some people see their own family or friends. This is where culturally sensitive care is provided to people with various interests, cultural backgrounds and capabilities while personal stories are shared and friendships forged. 

“There were always wonderful moments to experience, to discover how to reach the needs of the people and how to make them happy,” Marek said.

“We know some have a tragic history, they may have come to Australia straight after the Second World War without education, just with one suitcase, and they started to build a new future for themselves, for their families and this country.”

Like many of us within aged care, COVID-19 posed a huge challenge for supporting clients and aged care residents. Lockdowns forced AMCS’ Respite Group to shut down each time they occurred, with their multicultural family unable to meet up in person. 

Yet when asked about his career highlights, Marek said this was his busiest and proudest moment. He had clients who needed support and connection, and so, he secured some unused iPads and sprung into action. Every respite group member soon had an iPad and they were meeting virtually three times a day.

Marek and kwarantannik
A proud Marek showcases ‘Kwarantannik’; a newspaper created during COVID-19 for respite recipients. [Supplied]

“Every day we gathered for online exercises. Some of the clients were just using their phones and following my instructions. At 1pm we connected to play bingo and at 6pm we had a café where we would talk about a different topic each day; something humorous, poems, looking at pictures or someone was a special guest speaker,” he said.

“We also provided some meals and supplies like handmade facemasks one of my colleagues made. I also had the idea to create a small newspaper called Kwarantannik in Polish [meaning ‘Quarantiner’ in English]. Our publication covered what was happening in the group, who had a birthday, event updates, poems they had written and quizzes for them to complete.” 

“It meant they were not sitting at home struggling on their own, they were involved and had something to look forward to all day long. It was a great time and it created strong connections between us.”

Marek, who told HelloCare he was so proud to create an atmosphere of family with hundreds of respite participants, is about to embark on a European holiday with his wife to celebrate retirement. He won’t be lost to AMCS as he told their CEO, Elizabeth Drozd, he’ll be back as a volunteer.

He’s even promised to take plenty of photos of Europe to show the respite group members once he returns.

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