Spotlight on unsung heroes

Otago Community Hospice chief executive Ginny Green (right) and carer educator Denise van Aalst...
Otago Community Hospice chief executive Ginny Green (right) and carer educator Denise van Aalst are focused on ensuring that people caring for loved ones at home have the right knowledge and support. PHOTO: BRENDA HARWOOD
The Otago Community Hospice is shining the spotlight on the vital importance of palliative care in the community, and highlighting the unsung heroes who do the vast majority of the work, during Hospice Awareness Week.

Hospice chief executive Ginny Green said a lot of people believed the inpatient unit in North Dunedin was the main focus of hospice.

"But in reality most of our 850 patients per year start with receiving hospice services from our community care team in their own home," Ms Green said.

"Given that we cover the largest geographical area of any hospice in the country, we must focus on being a specialist service — which means we can’t possibly do everything ourselves.

"The bulk of the palliative care ‘workforce’ are unpaid and untrained family caregivers."

This is where experienced senior nurse and Otago Community Hospice carer educator Denise van Aalst comes in, providing up-to-date and valuable education to family carers.

The Family Carer Education service arose out of the hospice’s Kōwhai Programme, which was created in 2010 to provide mainly in-person education for whanau caring for loved ones, and a chance to connect with others going through similar experiences.

"We asked caregivers what they needed in addition to that programme, and so the Carer Education model is based on what they asked for," Mrs van Aalst said.

Along with a website, podcasts, zoom and face-to-face catch-ups for carers in the community, the service works to build their confidence and knowledge, so they can help ensure their loved one is able to remain at home.

"There are tips and tricks, information on tasks they haven’t done before — from transferring safely to managing medication, grief and loss, breathlessness and so on," she said.

"If people are feeling isolated caring for a loved one at home, the service can help with that."

Mrs van Aalst has been a registered nurse for about 40 years, and has worked with the hospice for about 20 years in a variety of roles. She has been carer educator for the past five years.

"I feel very supported in my role. The focus here at the hospice is on the family and the person being cared for," she said.

"It is hugely rewarding work."

Ms Green said the work of Mrs van Aalst, her fellow community care co-ordinators and the 40 specialist community staff working in every corner of Otago to support those who were dying and their families, were at "the heart and soul of our service".

"We want our community to know they are not on their own during this difficult time.

"If it is medical care, spiritual care, education, resources, or just some well needed rest, we will be there, wherever you are and whatever you need," she said.

The work of the hospice’s community team not only supported families, but also helped to take the pressure of primary healthcare, district nurses, and EDs, Ms Green said.

The Otago Community Hospice received about 55% of its funding from the government, and needed to raise about $5 million each year to cover its services. This included covering the cost of running its six Hospice Shops across the region, which were the largest single source of funding for the hospice.

"Thanks to the support of our community, we are very lucky to be able to adapt and flex to meet the needs of the people in our region," she said.

During Hospice Awareness Week, May 13-19, the Otago Community Hospice is running a text-to donate campaign to help fund its community team members.

"It’s the first time we’ve done a campaign like this, and we hope the community responds," she said.

To donate $3 to the hospice, text OCH4U to 4644.