Pat Brown’s eyes are alight with enthusiasm. “Oh, they’re fantastic, they’re our angels,” she says of her new best friends, the four University of Sydney students who are swapping companionship for free rent at the aged-care facility she calls home.
Aged 79, Pat is chatting animatedly about computers, handicrafts, family history and the university course on dementia prevention she has just completed. This bright-eyed, funny grandmother gets around in a wheelchair but still has “all her marbles”, as she wryly puts it. And she loves sharing life experiences with her 30-year-old neighbour Gabrielle.
Nothing too unusual about that, perhaps – except for the fact that, in a bold new initiative, they both live at a care facility in Sydney’s south, Scalabrini Bexley. That’s where Gabrielle and three other allied health students receive free rent in return for 30 hours of volunteered friendship and conversation each month.
“I tell them my door is always open any time, day or night, and they come to visit,” smiles Pat, who moved to the village three years ago when a painfully ulcerated foot finally made it impossible to stay at home. “I think there should be more dialogue between younger and older generations. If we listen, they can teach us a lot – especially about computers and phones – and we can teach them quite a bit too.”
Softly-spoken Gabrielle, a recent occupational-therapy graduate, laughs out loud. “To be fair, Pat, I think you know a lot more about phones than I do. You’re on Snapchat and I’m not!”
As they sit talking at Scalabrini’s Cafe Siena, cheerfully decorated with bunting in the Italian colours, their close bond is unmistakable. Pat, a mother of two, was widowed 15 years ago. Gabrielle lost her grandparents before she was 19, but has found a willing substitute in this feisty former hairdresser, pharmacy assistant and taxi driver.
“Pat tried to teach me to sew. I’m not a very crafty person and I just didn’t have it,” confides the newly minted healthcare professional, who misses her family in Lismore, northern NSW. “But she gives us the best relationship advice. I know we all have guy problems at times, so it’s nice for all of us to have someone we can go to for that little bit of guidance.
“She’s a special lady. There’s always something new that Pat is looking into or starting to try. She reminds me there’s so much out there to be experienced. I’m inclined to be a bit of a homebody but she makes me more curious about the world.”
Proudly showing off the exquisite, crocheted dream-catcher she just completed, Pat chuckles. “It was the same when I had my hair salon, the staff and customers used to come to me with boy or girlfriend problems. I used to tell them, ‘I’m your (agony aunt) Dorothy Dix,’ but of course they didn’t know who she was or what that meant.”
So what advice does Pat dispense? “Oh, I don’t know,” she muses. “Probably to have trust and patience. Never to say ‘can’t’ because that’s not a word in my language. And the most important thing: If you don’t put in any effort, you can’t expect to get anything back from relationships, marriage or life. It’s all the same.”
With her ninth decade looming, Pat revels in the company that Scalabrini Bexley offers – especially the chance to mix with students participating in its groundbreaking Gold Soul Companionship Program (GSCP).
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