Embracing death as a part of life: Palliative care volunteering
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Embracing death as a part of life: Palliative care volunteering

Stories/77 , Issues/Healthcare , Issues/Senior Citizens
Nepean Hospital, Kingswood NSW 2747, Australia
20th Oct 2017
Embracing death as a part of life: Palliative care volunteering
"We're not there to play God or anything, but what we can do is offer some help." Glen and David explain what it's like to be palliative care volunteers.

The truth is we don't have much say as to how we die, and most of us try to avoid thinking about it altogether. But what about those amongst us dying right now? Palliative care volunteering is one way any one of us can help the dying, who often find themselves in lonely and isolated circumstances.

On the outskirts of the CBD, across the western Sydney heartland of the Nepean, David Calderwood and Gwen Mason volunteer their time to care for dying people.

Gwen became involved with palliative care volunteering after her mother died nearly 10 years ago. Since then, she said she has developed a volunteering career by looking after and helping those most in need.

"Mostly my clients have been single people. They have family, but for whatever reason they can't be with their family, and that can be sad for them," Gwen said.

"It can be really rewarding to help with someone like that - one lady is even teaching me to crochet."

"I take them out, take them to their doctor's appointments, we'll have a chat and make a cup of tea," she explained.

Palliative care volunteers go into the homes of terminally ill people and offer respite to their carers. They also assist terminally ill people who need transportation to and from their check ups and doctor appointments, and will often visit hospitals to sit and talk with people who are dying alone.

David is a Vietnam War veteran who has been a volunteer for 18 years. He first became involved after his wife died in 1999 and found he wanted to give back to those in need.

Even with all the mental strain and conflicting emotions involved with death, David said volunteering in this line of work doesn't come with a large emotional toll.

"We can't help them or fix them medically and we realise we can't stop the clients from dying," David said.

"We're not there to play God or anything. But what we can do is offer some help, and if we can make the client feel good or give the family some rest and relaxation time, then we've done our part," David elaborated.

Putting it very simply, David said, "We're there to help the family, and help the clients, with dying."

Pictured: Gwen Mason and David Calderwood

Gwen added to this by saying she feels clients often trust the volunteers on a deep emotional level.

"I don't think it is that bad. If we can give someone a little extra enjoyment and company before they pass then we've done our job.

"You get to know the clients and often some people will confide in you more than anyone else because you're not there to offer up judgements on anything," she said.

David offered up a positive outlook on the future of his clients and their families.

"When they die it is hard, but I feel part of our job is helping to make things easier," he said. "We can help make things a little easier along the way."

Being a former Vietnam War solider, David said his training and military life has helped him especially connect to veterans who are terminally ill.

"Sometimes former veterans can't talk to other people about what they saw, what they went through, and having someone to relate to, particularly when you're dying, can have a big impact.

"I've had former Diggers tell me things they have never told their closest mates or even their family," he said.

Anyone can become a palliative care volunteer, but Gwen and David gave us an idea as to who might make a perfect candidate.

"You have got to accept death as a part of living," he said. "If you've had the experience of someone dying, then you'll have a better idea."

According to Gwen, it is all about your nature and you will need a high level of emotional maturity.

"I had a client for two years and over that time I just saw them deteriorate, and you need to be prepared to experience something like that," she said.

Palliative care volunteering is offered at most local health districts and hospitals across the country. If you have a big heart and can offer up two ears for listening, then enquire about the life-changing opportunities within palliative care volunteering.

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