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Companion Walking Service – Joe and Monika

Getting the right match is an important part of the Companion Walking Service, so that both the volunteer and the client enjoy their weekly appointments. Joe and Monika are both immigrants with very different backgrounds and cultures, but they get on well together, so the match works. They met up when Joe sought a walking companion because of his Parkinson’s disease, and Monika was looking to help someone here as she was not available to help her mother in Germany. They have been meeting weekly for over a year and have developed a warm friendship.

On first meeting Joe there is an air of inscrutability, but scratch beneath the surface and you find a friendly soul with a fine sense of humour, firmly grounded in his cultural heritage and religious convictions. He is also generous as he insists on paying for the coffee, “every time,” says Monika.

Joe, whose boyhood nickname was “Ken”, trained and worked as a Mechanical Engineer in Hong Kong before being recruited by his former boss in 1986 to move with his family to New Zealand. He was employed at the Wellington Hospital on air conditioning, ventilation and refrigeration projects and maintenance until he retired in 2006.

He admits it was a bit of a culture shock moving from the densely populated city to the more open spaces of Wellington, but they adjusted. The Chinese Cultural Centre and his church provided good bases and assistance in adapting to the new environment.

The family learned plenty about the eastern and southern suburbs of Wellington as they moved house eight times in the next twenty years; this included spells in Newtown, Island Bay, Kilbirnie and Johnsonville. Joe kept fit playing badminton at the Kilbirnie Recreation Centre or the Badminton Wellington courts on Ruahine Street; he played for pleasure and fitness rather than competitively. In addition, there were always other cultural and church activities, and regular return visits to Hong Kong to see his mother (now aged 96) and siblings.

After such a full life Joe looked for other activities when he retired and slowed down a bit. His weekly schedule now includes Qigong at the Johnsonville Community Centre on Monday; line and fan dancing for active seniors on Tuesday and Saturday mornings at the Wellington Chinese Sports and Cultural Centre in Mt Albert Road, Berhampore; walking and talking with Monika on Friday followed by a Parkinson’s exercise class; and church at the Chinese Baptist Church in Newtown all day on Sunday. In between he does the Steady-As-You-Go exercises at home using the video. (Qigong is part of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves using exercises to optimise energy within the body, mind, and spirit, with the goal of improving and maintaining health and well-being.)

He looks forward to his weekly walk to the Johnsonville library with Monika, for a coffee and a catch-up on the news in general, and family news in particular as well as a bit of gossip. Any topic is allowed apart from politics. It’s a short walk over flat terrain from his home, so they have plenty of energy for the chat session.

Monika fits the model that if you want something done get a busy person to do it: she does just about everything.

She was a film dialogue sound editor in Germany and moved to New Zealand with her Kiwi partner in 1996. “I was editing sound in Germany for almost 10 years. When I came to New Zealand, I worked in a few short jobs in insurance and tourism; nothing very important. And then I had my daughter and became more or less a mother, which I think is a good career. A rewarding career.”

Her daughter went to a Montessori kindergarten, which led to Monika training as a Montessori teacher. She has given that up and now works part time at the Marsden Club in Karori as a care assistant. The Marsden Club works in association with the Chelsea Club in Lyall Bay operating out of houses in the suburbs offering “high quality professional day care programmes for people with memory loss from Alzheimers disease or other related disorders in a socially stimulating home-like environment…” It also offers support and guidance to families and carers of members. For more information Phone: (04)387 7207

In her spare time (does she have any?) Monika is undertaking a professional development course for a certificate in Health and Wellbeing, so she will know what she is talking about when it comes to caring and wellbeing.

She took up volunteering for Age Concern just over a year ago. She applied to become a volunteer with several different organisations, and Age Concern took her on as a volunteer walking companion.

She had the idea because her mother lives in a retirement home in Germany and her sister had problems finding someone to take her for walks. “So I thought maybe I can help somebody else here instead. If I can help somebody here, I feel good about myself. And hopefully, it will translate into maybe somebody else in Germany having the same idea. And if you write about it, it will maybe encourage others to do that, as well.”

Joe has been her only client, and as became obvious during our talk the weekly meeting is more than a just companionable walk. They aim for the Johnsonville library for coffee but can get stopped by neighbours and friends along the way, and by regulars in the library, so conversations expand, and social connections are a feature as well as the original fitness objective. It is a winning combination for all concerned.

It’s a small world. Lynn Crossland, who manages the Companion Walking Service in Wellington, advises that Joe’s son Andrew works in the same department as her husband, but she only found that out after Joe and Monika were matched up. She added: “I matched them as I felt Monika had the right personality for a good relationship with Joe. She has a quiet nature, very kind and considerate. She is a gentle person that you can feel at ease with and is very understanding. I knew she would not push Joe too much and let him walk at his own pace.”


Volunteer walkers wanted: Age Concern is looking for volunteers who live in Karori, Johnsonville or Tawa to help with its Companion Walking Service. This service provides one-to-one assistance for people who find walking on their own difficult. Training and support is provided. Age concern is looking for people who are a keen walkers and would like to provide companionship for older people who find it difficult to go out on their own. People interested in this role can email or ring 04 499 6646



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