We were impressed in the office when we saw the joyful pictures of our colleague Martyna’s grandmother in Poland. Our Connect Hackney senior media group agreed and decided to put their computer skills to the test and interview Helena about ageing better in Poland.
Q. What’s your name?
HP: Helena Porębska
Q. When were you born?
HP: I was born on 17 November 1928.
Q. What was the town where you lived as a child like?
HP: I was born in a town Jeziory (which means ‘lakes’) near Grodno – now it’s in Belarus but it was in east Poland then. Because there were two beautiful lakes it was a summer resort. Jeziory was a multicultural town inhabited by the Polish, Jewish and Belarussian. People followed different religions – Catholicism, Judaism and Orthodox Christian. We all lived in peace.
Q. What’s the name of the town where you live and what’s it like?
HP: I live in Szczecin which is located in northeast Poland on the Oder River, close to Germany and the Baltic Sea. Szczecin is the capital of our region. It’s a big city so we have everything we need here. I live in a very green part of Szczecin in a flat with a garden. My closest family and friends live here as well so I really enjoy it.
Q. Were you married? Did you have children?
HP: I was married and have two sons. Unfortunately my husband passed away a few years ago and now I live on my own.
Q. What was life like in communist Poland?
HP: I finished high school in Wroclaw and then moved to Szczecin to study at a medical university. I was young and busy preparing for difficult exams. We didn’t have prosperity and had to stay in long queues for hours to get anything in shops. We didn’t have any clubs and couldn’t travel to the west but we were enjoying ourselves anyway. If you wanted to have something extra you had to offer a bribe or have something special to exchange it in barter. Life was very basic and difficult but, as I said, I was young and busy and didn’t know any other reality. We were just living.
Q. What was your profession and did you enjoy it?
HP: I was a dentist and I liked it. However, my dream was to be a doctor. Becoming a doctor required studying longer and I couldn’t afford it.
Q. If you were to start over again, would you choose any other profession?
HP: I would rather be a doctor or surgeon.
Q. What was it like during the Second World War?
HP: It’s difficult to summarise it but I can say I remember two main things present in life during the war – hunger and fear. I was a child when the war started. In 1939 the Russians invaded us and annexed our region to USSR. We were under the Soviet occupation until ‘41. I was attending school, learning Russian.
In June ‘41 my brothers were arrested and me, my mum and my sister were taken on a train going to Siberia. But there was huge bombing on the way as the Germans attacked. As a result we were overtaken by Germans and went back home. The German occupation started.
During the German occupation I had to go to work. They didn’t provide any schools for Polish people, everyone was forced to work. Many people were being sent to Germany to work but I was lucky to work in a local hospital as a cleaner. I worked there until ‘44 when the Russians entered again. We had the Russian occupation again and I could go back to school. In ‘45 when the war finished the borders shifted and we were allowed to move to the west, to the region annexed by Poland. We were afraid to stay in Jeziory as it was annexed by USSR. We chose to move to Jelenia Góra, near Wrocław.
Q. You look stunning for your age. What is the secret to looking so good?
HP: A simple life, this is a secret. Being active and having a positive attitude, including a gratitude for every day we live.
Q. Do you have any tips on diet that has helped you keep so young?
HP: I eat everything in moderation and I believe my body knows what is good or what to avoid. I avoid eating things which make me feel bad, especially sweets, but I don’t have any special diet.
Q. What type of activities and exercise do you do?
HP: I go for a walk every day. I cannot sit at home. It’s not enough to walk at home. I walk at least one hour every day. I have a person to help me do some works at home from time to time but I’m not allowing her to do things for me. I do as much as I can.
Q. What is the health service like in Poland?
HP: It’s free and not too bad but there are more and more private places being opened where you can get things done quicker if you pay. Many medicines are free for older people.
Q. How are people of age treated in Poland?
HP: It’s getting better. There are many senior clubs which organises different classes, trips, events. It’s all free and supported by local councils. However, I can’t go out as often as I used to because I broke my hip last year and I’m less mobile.
Families are taking care of their older members. It’s difficult when you don’t have a close family, you might get lonely. But I can’t complain, I have great sons and daughters in law as well as grandchildren.
Q. How do you feel about life?
HP: I feel very positive. I have many friends and good neighbours. People often come to see me and my family takes care of me. It’s all very pleasant. I enjoy every day and I’m happy that I’m independent and I’m in a good mental condition. You have to be good for yourself and remember you can always improve your life.
Q. When did you start learning the computer?
HP: I went to a computer course when I was 60 years old. When I don’t know how to do new things I ask my son, Witek, for help. I pay my bills online and use e-mail, skype and messenger to communicate with my family and friends. I enjoy free access to the news and information. Without leaving home or buying newspapers I can check any information online. It’s amazing.
Q. Do you keep in touch with friends and family in different parts of the world using a computer?
HP: Yes, I keep in touch with my granddaughter who lives in London and a few family members who live in Germany.
Q. What would you say to someone who says they are too old to use a computer?
HP: You are never too old. It’s all about motivation and learning. You need to want it and understand it’s good for you. Without the internet I wouldn’t know many things. I feel updated and able to participate in culture as well as my children and grandchildren. Without access to the internet I would have felt a little bit isolated.
Q. What is your advice for the human race for the next ten years?
HP: Love and health are most important. So love each other and enjoy a simple life in peace and friendship. Make an effort towards these values.