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Volunteers make a difference

By Cathy Withiel

Dogs are wonderful companions, but they don’t understand cricket. And they don’t get that being out for a duck is not the same as trying to chase one in the park.

So during the cricket season, Uniting AgeWell Social Connections volunteer Pat Kennedy knew the moment she said “hello” to the older client she phoned every fortnight, she’d be regaled with the innings of the latest match.

“She lived alone and used to spend her evenings cuddled up in bed with her dog watching Australia take on England during The Ashes,” Pat explains. “And she couldn’t wait to tell me all about the game. We became great friends.”

Pat has been a volunteer since she retired seven years ago and gets huge joy in making a difference to the lives of lonely older people. “We talk about all sorts of things,” Pat says. “The coronation, the weather, our experiences … it’s wonderful to hear their stories and to be a part of their lives.”

And Pat says she sees first-hand the terrible emptiness that loneliness can cause. “I visited another client who lived in a backyard granny flat. Sometimes I was the only person she saw all week. At the end of each visit, she’d hug me goodbye.”

Actions often say what words can’t and Pat finds it’s the little things she does in the one-on-one visits that make all the difference. “We go and have a coffee at a café, or browse through the shops. We’ll share family photos, play a game of cards and have a laugh. Having fun is so important.”

Pat says volunteering not only provides purpose but also fills the deep need in her to help others. “I’ve been very blessed,” she says. “I’ve been married nearly 50 years, we’ve got two kids and three grandchildren and I’ve had a busy happy life. I want to give back.”

This is just one of the many heart-warming stories to emerge at one of the lunches, brunches and morning teas Uniting AgeWell held during National Volunteer Week from May 15-21 to thank its volunteers for enriching the lives of older people.

The theme for this year was The Change Makers which celebrates the power to drive change and ensure volunteering is inclusive of all members of the Australian community. Uniting AgeWell CEO Andrew Kinnersly says, “this theme rings true for us, where inclusion is a core value underpinning everything we do. With a long history of volunteer support, Uniting AgeWell’s services have grown and flourished; a vital contribution we recognise and appreciate each and every day”.

Uniting AgeWell’s services stem from the pews of Uniting Church congregations across Victoria and Tasmania. For over 60 years, Uniting Church congregations proved that actions speak louder than words by providing care and support services to older members of their communities.

It wasn’t just the care itself – it was all the work behind it, too. Members of multiple congregations rolled up their sleeves and lobbied government for finance, encouraged and managed bequests of land and money, garnered local community support and managed fundraising campaigns for residential care facilities.

And it is the work of these dedicated volunteers that has served as the foundation for all Uniting AgeWell’s services today, that reach tens of thousands of people each year.

The landscape changed in 1997 when the Federal Government determined the aged care sector should be closely regulated and brought in the Aged Care Act. The rest is history. For some years following this change, Uniting Church aged care services were managed by local boards and CEOs until they were brought together as one organisation, Uniting Aged Care in 2004, which was renamed Uniting AgeWell in 2013.

What hasn’t changed though, is there’s still a huge need for volunteers.

The social isolation caused by the long lockdowns during the COVID pandemic has had widespread effects.

Volunteers graeme and joy

Joy and Graeme Thomson in the kitchen at Uniting AgeWell’s Social Connections Centre, Linlithgow in Ivanhoe.

And one of the areas to suffer was face-to-face volunteering in aged care, which largely ground to a halt. While telephone and video-link volunteering continued, it became increasingly clear there’s no substitute for a hug or going out to a café to connect with the community.

Older people and volunteers alike suffered. Statistics from the Australian institute of Health and Welfare make grim reading. In October 2020, before the second COVID lockdown was lifted, Victorians were more than twice as likely to report feeling loneliness than other Australians in other states.

These bleak days are behind us – and now more than ever it’s time to join Uniting AgeWell’s 500-plus group of volunteers who are back in full swing and determined to make up for lost time.

The Australian Government’s Department of Health ‘Healthdirect’ says volunteering provides many benefits, including creating a sense of achievement and purpose and helping you feel part of the community.

It enables you to share your talents, learn new skills and creates a better work-life balance. And socially it helps combat stress, loneliness and depression – with the added benefit of meeting new people which can help you feel more connected and valued.

Uniting AgeWell’s volunteers know first-hand that volunteering not only enriches the lives of older people, but their own. And this is not text book knowledge. It’s lived experience.

And there are other benefits to add in to the mix, for example those who volunteer their time to take part in the many research projects that Uniting AgeWell undertakes to improve the quality of life and services for older people. Some even find that volunteering opens career pathways within the organisation. This makes sense. One of pre-requisites for working at Uniting AgeWell is kindness, and you have to be a kind person to volunteer!

Volunteering is not only deeply rewarding, but it can help fill the lonely void sometimes felt in retirement. Or when a partner passes away, or when someone finds themselves living apart from their loved one who has moved into residential care.

When Merv Stanton’s late wife, Margaret moved into the Queenborough Rise Community in Sandy Bay over a decade ago, she looked out her bedroom window and said, “The garden is beautifully green, but there’s no colour”.

So Merv promptly set about bringing in vibrant plants from the garden at their home and planting them outside Margaret’s window. “Margaret loved looking out at the bright bursts of colour,” Merv says. “It made her very happy.”

Working in the garden made Merv happy, too. He became a volunteer – and at 96 he’s still there! Not only is he busy in the garden, but over the years he’s called Bingo, gone on bus trips with residents, helped set up the Garden Club and looked after the library. He still prepares the quiz every fortnight.
“The more you give as a volunteer, the more you receive,” the retired Anglican Minister says. “I have gained so much personally through helping others. It’s wonderful.”

Then there’s Stan Roberts whose world has evolved around his wife, Dorothy, for the past 28 years they have been married.

Two years ago, she moved into Uniting AgeWell Kalkee Community Nangatta when her dementia worsened. And now that he’s living in an independent unit on his own, Stan’s world still revolves around her. Only in her new home.

As well as visiting Dorothy, he’s taken up volunteering there two days a week: helping staff during busy meal times and being involved with activities for residents. The 80-year-old even brings along the saxophone he’s been playing since he was a teenager, and performs old favourites for everyone.
Stan says volunteering adds purpose to his days. “It is a privilege to spend time with people and know that I am bringing joy to their day and making a difference,” he says.

Volunteers stan

Stan Roberts loves volunteering at Uniting AgeWell Kalkee Community Nangatta.

What is clear is there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to volunteers who are as diverse as the older people they spend time with. What unites them is their kindness and their desire to help others.
A gathering of Berwick-based volunteers that hosted a thank-you brunch by Uniting AgeWell at a local café recently provided a snapshot of the many different cultures and ages of volunteers, ranging from students as young as 19 to people in their 70s. And as the laughter and chatter rose and the coffee cups emptied, the group swapped stories and shared their joy in creating joy in the lives of others.

They are all part of Uniting AgeWell’s Social Connections Program funded through the Government’s Commonwealth Home Support Program, where they are matched with clients who need support to connect with their community, interests or services.

One of those is Bachelor of Science student Tanycia Munasinghe, 21, who has a Sri Lankan background and who visits a 75-year-old client. “I love spending time with her,” Tanycia says. While Raheed Bostan, 19, a Commerce and Law student at Monash University says, “My grandmother is in my homeland of Pakistan and spending one-on-one time with older people is almost a way to connect to her”.
Volunteers have different interests, too. And with the vast range of volunteering opportunities available, there’s something for everyone.

Rachel Martin, Uniting AgeWell Team Leader Social Connections says there are many options to choose from:
• One-on-one visiting: spending time with people at home – playing board games or listening to music or chatting. Or out in the community and supporting them to get back to the things they enjoy socially – visiting op-shops or cafes, galleries or places of interest, or going out to lunch.
• Chat-A-Ring: chatting one-on-one with people on weekly or fortnightly calls.
• Telelink: group chats with up to six-eight people who dial in. Topics can include armchair travel, quizzes or just chatting! This is particularly beneficial for people with social anxiety or those who are vision-impaired.
• Outings – taking people out for meals or to the movies, or other outings established around people’s needs and preferences.

Retired Ringwood social worker Ken Rosenhain volunteers with the Social Connections Program and takes a group of older men to lunch every fortnight. Ken says they are all single, with some of them widowed and many aged 70 or older. He and another volunteer transport them from their homes and take them to a Ringwood restaurant, and then drive them home after lunch.

“We talk about sport and current affairs, and then when everyone is relaxed, the conversation sometimes gets into how they’re coping and how they’re feeling,” Ken explains. “The lunches usually go for about two hours.”

Ken says his experience is that men can be reluctant to open up to how they are really feeling. “Some of them can be really lonely when they find themselves single again after all these years,” Ken explains.

“They think they will cope, but some of them don’t. They’re really isolated.”
Drive to help out

If you live in country Victoria and going out to cafes or visiting people in their homes isn’t your thing, you can be like former limousine chauffeur Jamie Bessell, who is right on track when it comes to giving back to the community.

Volunteers jamie

Jamie Bessell is a volunteer driver at Grampians Community Transport.

He’s loving volunteering at Grampians Community Transport, which provides local transport for older people in Ararat or Ballarat, with trips made further afield for medical appointments.

Jamie is one of the volunteers who delivers the Uniting AgeWell community transport service in the region, which has a fleet of six cars and a bus.

And Jamie, 65, says volunteering keeps him on top of his game during retirement. “I enjoy driving people to doctors’ appointments or social outings,” he says, “and it’s great to chat to them”.

Some volunteers work in many of our community centres, like Joy and Graeme Thompson who love spending their days ladling out hot meals – and happiness.

Recently they served soup and lasagna for an Italian-themed meal for older people at Uniting AgeWell’s Social Connections Centre, Linlithgow in Ivanhoe. And they are thoroughly enjoying helping staff organise dancing, light exercises, bocce, balloon tennis, card games, arts and crafts and more.

The couple has been volunteering at the centre for the past five years following a call out for volunteers by the Uniting Church they attend. Graeme has held significant volunteer roles within the church all his life, including being chairperson of the congregation, so when he heard the call to action he was delighted to step forward.

“There’s so much to get out of volunteering. It’s very rewarding,” Graeme says. “The participants love being here at the centre. They share a great bond, and there’s lots of affection.”

The couple finds their own particular interests resonate well with the older participants: Joy loves flower arranging and Graeme enjoys sharing presentations of his holidays, like his journey to the Nullabor.

Volunteering opportunities are as varied and diverse as the volunteers themselves. Like Sue O’Donohoe, who brings her therapy dogs to visit Strathdon Community residents. The Bernese Mountain pups have certainly wagged their tails into their hearts and Sue confesses she even dresses them up for special occasions. Nothing hound couture – just bunny ears for Easter and antlers and tinsel for Christmas! Sue enjoys it too; she says there’s something hugely rewarding about volunteering.

Many volunteers spend time regularly visiting individual residents, others help the lifestyle team with activities and outings. And there are volunteers who help write residents’ life stories, a particularly rewarding experience for all involved, with residents enjoying the chance to reflect on their lives, tell their story and leave a written legacy for their families.

If you have a big heart and a little bit of spare time on your hands, you may like to consider enriching the lives of others – and your own – by becoming a volunteer. Uniting AgeWell would love to hear from you!

Call 13 93 75 or visit their website



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