What do I owe you for this?

In the first of a series of blogs we are running to mark Volunteers’ Week, Tony Bonser gives an insight into the invaluable work of those who give their time freely to help people in hospices: 

I’m driving Doreen to day care at our local hospice. It’s Friday and I know that however hard her week has been, she will give me my weekly injection of positivity.

“How’s your week been?” I enquire. “Not too good,” is often the answer, but it always continues, “But today’s going to be wonderful!” And when I pick her up, it always had been. She gives me more than she will ever know.

So when a business man, also a day care patient, asked me after our first journey, “What do I owe you?” I was delighted to say, “Nothing.” I’d been rewarded already.

My wife Dorothy and I volunteer for our local hospice, for Macmillan and for the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) as a result of the death of our son, Neil, at the age of 35, from cancer.

We work with the hospice as drivers because we have seen what wonderful work they do, not just for their patients but for the whole local community. It was a Macmillan nurse who enabled Neil to die where he wanted to be, in his own flat, and we raise money to extend the benefits they bring to as many people as possible.

With NCPC we campaign for better support for those with life-shortening conditions, their families and carers.

In many ways, volunteers are in a privileged positon. We often build up a relationship with the people we meet, hearing their perspective on the care they receive. Unlike many professionals, we have time to stop and listen. Whether collecting donations in a supermarket, wheeling a trolley round wards or driving patients to the local hospital or hospice, we are able to listen, to find out what is on people’s minds, what really matters to them, And because of this we can feed that information into the organisations, to make them more responsive to needs, not only of the patient, but often of the family and carers too, who have their own set of priorities.

Many of us volunteer in areas of which we have personal experience. This gives us the ability to empathise with those we come into contact with, and sometimes to help as a result of our life experiences. We often find ourselves in a position to give people “permission” to be themselves, and to feel the way they feel, assuring them that, painful as it may be, their reaction to the situation is a perfectly natural one.

Our People in Partnership group at NCPC is comprised of people with personal experience of terminal conditions, as carers or those with a diagnosis. We support each other and derive the strength to work individually in condition-specific arenas, to help improve provision and drive change.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” about volunteers. We come in all shapes and sizes, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and are driven by many different forces. If I had one message for the NHS, it would be take people as they are, use what they have to give, support and cherish them. They are valuable beyond belief.

  • Volunteers’ Week – runs from 1-7 June 2015
  • Tomorrow we hear from Jacqui, a disabled Whizz-Kidz volunteer who works with children.
Tony Bonser

Tony Bonser is a trustee of St Catherine’s Hospice, Preston and the National Council for Palliative Care, for whom he chairs the People in Partnership User Group.

He is also the North West Local Champion for the Dying Matters Coalition. He speaks and writes on end of life care issues, and campaigns for better communication between professionals and patients. He has broadcast on television and local and national radio. He is a member of the Independent Review Panel for the Liverpool Care Pathway.