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Once a Vice-Admiral in the Navy; now leading a team of volunteers in palliative care

Volunteers play an important role in palliative care, according to Jennifer Doggett. Below she reports from the 12th Australian Palliative Care Conference, which was held in Canberra last week.

Jennifer Doggett reports:

“We’re just ordinary people helping other ordinary people,” says Matt Tripovich when asked about his work as Volunteer Coordinator for Palliative Care ACT.

However, when talking to the staff at Palliative Care Australia it is clear that the work Matt and his volunteers are doing is anything but ordinary.

Matt uses skills in leadership, logistics and management, developed during his career as a Vice-Admiral in the Navy, to lead and inspire a growing team of volunteers working in the palliative care sector.

Matt became a volunteer after visiting local hospice Clare Holland House to spend time with a friend who was a patient there.

“At one point I had been there for a while and someone came and asked if I would like a cup of tea. It was such a simple gesture but meant so much at the time,” he says. “After my friend died I contacted the hospice to find out how I could help. I joined Palliative Care ACT’s volunteers program and somehow ended up as coordinator.”

Volunteers are an important but often overlooked part of the health care sector, and play a particularly important role in palliative care.

They can work in a number of settings, including family homes and hospices, and perform a number of tasks to support patients, their carers and families.

For example, in Clare Holland House volunteers show visitors around the facility, make them cups of tea or just listen to patients and their families while they talk.

Matt says the specific role of the volunteer depends on the individual needs of the patient and family. “Sometimes patients want volunteers to talk to them and of course we can do that. We also sometimes just sit with patients who don’t want to talk but who don’t want to be alone.”

Matt emphasises the importance of having a wide range of volunteers available to meet the diverse needs of clients.

“We try to match clients with volunteers who share some of their interests or life experiences,” he says. “That way they are more able to understand and meet their needs. Having a background in the services, I can relate to another ex-service person and we can swap stories about our experiences.  But if we had an ex-truckie or ex-teacher, it would be great to find a volunteer with a similar professional background.”

Matt believes that one of the keys to the success of the program is the excellent training and support provided by Palliative Care ACT to volunteers.

“We make sure that volunteers are well-equipped to deal with the challenges of working in a palliative care environment and provide them with support and de-briefing opportunities when required. It’s very common for volunteers to say that they get as much or more out of the program than they contribute.”

Matt recently coordinated the very successful ‘Volunteers Day’ at the Australian Palliative Care Conference 2013.  This was attended by 120 volunteers, and included a broad range of presentations and interactive workshops on issues relevant to volunteering in palliative care.

These included sessions on grief, the volunteer-client relationship, the role of music therapy in palliative care and how to support families and carers.

Associate Professor Amy Chow, a researcher specialising in dying and bereavement issues based in Hong Kong, gave the keynote address.  The role of diversity in palliative care was a key theme of the conference with speakers from the Chinese community and the Partners in Culturally Appropriate Care (PICAC) Program presenting on the importance of diversity within palliative care.

The Volunteers’ Day brought palliative care volunteers from around Australia and overseas together to share and learn from each other’s experiences.

Matt says: “While every volunteer and every client is unique, there are many commonalities in the experiences we have when caring for and supporting someone with a life-limiting illness.

“As volunteers, we welcome the chance to get together and chat about our own experiences and network with other volunteers from the sector. Volunteers are generally very interesting, committed and engaged people and it was a pleasure being able to meet so many of them at this Conference.”

• For previous Croakey coverage of the 12th Australian Palliative Care Conference, see here. 

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