Helen Jurcevic’s decade-long commitment to tackling social isolation among older women, especially from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, has earned her an OAM in Monday’s Queen’s Birthday honours list.
As the founder of the Women’s Friendship Group, Mrs Jurcevic has brought together over 200 women from 34 cultures in Manningham, Melbourne to pursue diverse interests such as craft, exercise and fitness and social justice.
The women who have participated in the group have reported enhanced health and wellbeing through improved social connectedness and higher self-esteem, and interest is now growing to replicate the model more broadly.
Following the death of a husband or late-life divorce, older women often have to learn how to survive by themselves, she said, which is why the group aims to provide opportunities for companionship and to rebuild identity and purpose.
In monthly meetings guest presenters discuss important legal, health and finance issues facing older women.
She said the multicultural organisation is built on the principles of friendship, inclusiveness and community, and aims to alleviate the negative effects of loneliness and social isolation in old age.
“The Women’s Friendship Group has given the women a sense of self-worth and pride and their social justice work helps develop a greater sense of connection with others,” Mrs Jurcevic told Australian Ageing Agenda.
Among the group’s international social justice activities is an ongoing fundraising campaign to support a village in Kenya ravaged by drought and famine to become self-sufficient. The group has successfully raised funds to install water pipes in the village to end the 16-kilometre journey of the local village women in Kanthi to gather fresh water.
Funds have also supported the building of a greenhouse, a primary school and a medical centre in the village.
The project has had the effect of empowering women in both countries, she said.
In other activities, the women’s group has made over 1,700 garments which have been distributed to Manningham Community Health Services as part of its craft program and the women have also produced a cooking book of favourite recipes from all over the world.
Mrs Jurcevic said the current ambition was to set up Women’s Friendship Groups in other municipalities and the Victorian Multicultural Commission had asked her to see how the model might work in regional areas. “While some of the men are doing it tough on the land, the wives are doing it even tougher and require that emotional and psychological support,” she said.
Research students at Deakin University had studied the impact of the friendship group model on older women who were members and found positive benefits on health and wellbeing. A report was produced for those who were interested in setting up a Women’s Friendship group in their community.
Other honours recipients:
The former CEO of Bethanie Group in Western Australia and past president of the Aged Care Association of Australia, Stephen Becsi, was honoured for services to the aged care industry.
Mark Brandon was awarded an OAM in recognition of his contribution to health and aged care standards. Mr Brandon was the CEO of the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency for 11 years and a member of the Australian Government’s Ageing Consultative Committee.
He has participated in a strategic review of aged care training and previously worked at Medibank Private and as a state manager for the Health Insurance Commission (now Medicare Australia).
Alzheimer’s Australia NSW CEO John Watkins was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his service to the community in leadership positions with health organisations and to the Parliament of NSW.
Mayor of Berrigan Shire Council Bernard Curtin was honoured for service to local government and to aged care. He is a board member of Amaroo Aged Care and was the Founding Chairman of the Berrigan Aged Care Association Committee.
Also recognised was Beryl Connah, a former nurse educator who has volunteered with Salvation Army Aged Care Plus in the ACT since 1995.