For 2023 Western Australia Senior Australian of the Year Theresa Kwok, community has always been deeply rooted in her DNA. It is the platform that has supported and guided her throughout her life, and the driving force behind her purpose of helping others.
Born in Hong Kong, Theresa moved to Australia more than 35 years ago – leaving everything that she had ever known behind, including a career in social work.
‘It was incredibly humbling. I had uprooted my life to a completely different ecosystem and culture, without my community and friends around me for support. The isolation was very intense,’ Theresa said.
It was this difficult experience that led Theresa to what would become her life’s passion – supporting older people migrating to Australia to overcome the same barriers she faced.
‘One and a half years after I moved to Australia, I began working with Chung Wah Community & Aged Care (CAC). I learned so much and could see the challenges I faced were very minimal compared to others. I thought at least I could communicate in English. The hardships for people with language barriers is huge,’ Theresa said.
‘These little things that we take for granted in life are so hard for them. That’s when I made my own commitment – to help these people and work for and with them.’
Theresa is now CEO of Chung Wah CAC and proudly works alongside aged care providers and community organisations to support culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) people to age positively. She supports around 800 clients, many of whom speak no English and moved to Australia in the latter part of their lives.
‘CALD is like a continuum, not a blanket statement. To deliver services that put these people first, we need to understand their individual differences and adapt our support to their needs. They need to feel included and like they belong.’
Theresa says this is why community is so important, especially for people who have left their support networks and are beginning again in a new country.
‘We welcome CALD seniors to join our community and feel part of our culture. Slowly they become more confident and vocal, breaking their isolation and making friends, learning new things and maintaining their independence and mobility. They begin to recognise that we are all Australian and have cultural strengths to contribute to this country.’
Theresa likens the concept of community to a spider web, which we build and grow as we age. She is proud to have built her own community in Australia and to now give back to others through her work.
‘Wherever we go throughout the different phases of our lives, community is our platform, providing us with all the support that we need,’ Theresa said.
‘Community connects us together. By giving back, we can strengthen this web – ensuring that our community is nourished and can flourish.’
Reflecting on her ongoing work within the Australian aged care system, Theresa is thrilled to see the new aged care reforms ushering in a new era of improved care for all Australians.
‘I’m privileged to have seen the transition and change in the aged care sector over the last 35 years. For a long time, the approach was focused on giving people what we thought was best for them. It is fantastic that the system is moving towards a person-centred approach and looking at individual need,’ Theresa said.
‘Let’s solve these problems together. Everyone has a role to play! We have to prepare for the future – we don’t want to leave Australia’s older generation behind. Through the current aged care reforms, we are on the right track.’
Theresa is proud to continue to pursue her dreams every day. Although recently recognised as Western Australia’s 2023 Senior Australian of the Year, she says she isn’t driven by awards and success, but rather to make a difference in the lives of others and still do what she loves.
‘My dream is to be able to help non-English speaking seniors who call Australia home. For the many people who migrate here, this is their home for better or worse. Let’s make it for the better! I want them to be able to go back home and tell their community everything they have been achieving in Australia. This is what drives me on as I age,’ Theresa said.
‘I’m still doing what I love and live in a country that offers the best for everyone. I am truly the lucky one.’
Her hope for older people is that they enjoy this wonderful time in their life and don’t feel pressured by societal biases about what it means to get older.
‘I feel that many people place us into silos as we age. Don’t let this change your thinking or restrict yourself to live the life people think you should. This is a transitional phase of our life. Continue to be yourself and do what you like to do,’ Theresa said.
‘We are now in our golden era! After a lifetime spent saving and looking after others, you can now totally focus on yourself and do the things you like. This is what you should be proud of and treasure. Spoil yourself, make your life enjoyable and fun!’
Theresa is one of many older people in Australia achieving incredible things as they age. She is sharing her story with us as part of our sponsorship of the Senior Australian of the Year category of the Australian of the Year Awards.
For more inspiring stories, hear from past and present Senior Australian of the Year winners.
We are committed to ensuring every Australian has the opportunity to live well, stay healthy and maintain their connection to community as they age. To learn more about how we are supporting Australians to age well, visit our Positive ageing page.