Lydia Swystun has led an adventurous life. Through the lows of homelessness and depression to the highs of travel, the arts and working with animals, she believes in going all in with whatever you love.
“The main things in life are to be connected to your higher power, to laugh and to have a passion. I’ve done a lot. I’ve been very fortunate,” Swystun shared.
In celebration of National Older Americans Month: Engage at Every Age in May, we share Lydia’s story of living her dreams, getting Suncoast PACE care and striving to age and live well.
Connecting to Care
Certain health conditions make it more challenging for Swystun to function on her own at home. She manages a chronic illness and pain in her knees. She experienced depression after a fall and subsequent surgeries.
Turning to Suncoast PACE, part of the Empath Health network, changed her life about a year and a half ago. PACE provides medical care, adult day care and support services that help keep Pinellas County aging, chronically-ill seniors living healthy and independently at home and in the community.
“One day I fell and dislocated my shoulder. I ended up with three surgeries that knocked me off the loop. I live alone. I ordered comfort food and gained weight. I couldn’t get around. My friends helped me out, but I didn’t want to bother them. I was very depressed. I didn’t know what to do and I knew I needed help. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw an Empath Health commercial on TV. It was meant to be,” she explained.
The in-home support, medical transportation and health care and watercolor painting at the day center benefit her immensely.
She noted, “PACE takes me to all of my treatments. They helped me out sending food home and checked to make sure everything is safe at home. I have an aide who does house cleaning, food shopping or whatever I need. I come here (day center) once a week. I have a great nurse and social worker. If I have a problem I can take it to them.”
She feels healthier and better.
“Because of PACE I can get around. I’ve lost 80 pounds. I need to lose more weight. I’m happiest when I’m creative, so I’m doing well,” she added.
Coming to America and Following Passions
Swystun and her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was a baby.
“I was born in Germany and came to America when I was two years old. My parents met in a displaced persons camp in the Ukraine. We came to New York and lived in New Jersey, where I went to a Ukrainian grammar school. My father was a butcher and then a general manager contractor in mechanical engineering,” she shared.
The family eventually landed in Massachusetts, where she grew up and furthered her education and travels.
“I went to high school with nuns in Massachusetts. I went to college at UMass Amherst and got a degree in anthropology. I love studying culture. I was a hippie. I hitchhiked with friends in Europe. It was wonderful,” she said.
A Heart for Horses
After traveling, Swystun laid roots outside of Chicago and then Pennsylvania. She took care of horses for 25 years.
She recalled, “I’ve taught, trained, rode, jumped, shown and helped breed them. They are big teddy bears. I bought a horse named Zirka, which means star in Ukrainian. She had a star on her head. We were bonded. She was very well-bred. I started training her when she was three and she was so easy. At four years old, I had to sell her. A doctor and trainer bought her and she was shown around the country and featured in magazines. I rode horses that trainers were afraid to ride. I had the patience to work with them.”
Later, Swystun ventured from the stables to a 25-year career with the post office. Happily, she got transferred to Clearwater to be closer to her parents. She again took up caring for horses and became a professional photographer and a musician.
“I enjoyed photography a lot. I had a dark room and got into art shows. I shot the covers of Stash magazine of St. Pete artists. I continue to do Florida landscapes,” she shared.
She felt a special joy performing Native American flute music.
“It’s so peaceful and relaxing. My first song is always a prayer song. On stage, I feel at home. Music heals the soul. I did a concert here (PACE) one time,” she said.
Aging and Living Well
Today, Swystun enjoys staying active. She keeps a book filled with her favorite quotes, friend and family photos, newspaper clippings of her life events and other inspirational material. She likes watercolor and pastel painting, writing and spending time with her beloved bird, friends and family.
“My bird’s name is Iris. I love her. I have two friends who come visit and we have art class. We laugh and have so much fun. My niece and I get along so well. She owns a belly dance studio and teaches yoga. We’ve played music together,” she shared.
She appreciates how much PACE has helped uplift her life.
She added, “I come to PACE and people are positive and affirmative. I love the staff. They are exceptional – very patient, loving and kind. They believed in me. They have been so wonderful to me. I don’t know what I would do without this.”
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