“Just as much as I have brought joy into the lives of those I have met through working as a Community Visitor with the Central Area Health Service over the years, so they have enriched mine. I know now how I can grow old gracefully and how pointless accumulating material possessions is”.

My mother spent six months in a nursing home before she died. I remember every day there was either a member of the family or friend spending time with her. She never felt lonely or isolated. Every other resident in the nursing home was envious of her. I remembered the sad faces of the lonely people longing for a visitor to talk to them. The image really stayed in my mind …

One day in August 1994, I was listening to SBS Radio and heard that volunteers were needed to visit elderly people in nursing homes. Without a second thought, I rang up to enlist right away. It turned out I was the first volunteer interviewed by Veronica Hon, who had just started working for the nursing home visitor scheme.

I am just one of the thousands of Hong Kong Chinese living in Sydney. But to Ann, a 95-year-old Chinese lady living in an English-speaking nursing home, I am unique. I am the one and only friend in the world to whom she speaks her own language and have been visiting her regularly for four years. She can no longer remember a single name or a single face of any of her children, grandchildren or great grandchildren – but she recognises me! I only give her a bit of my time, yet she returns it with love and gratitude.

Not counting Ann, I have visited a total of seven residents at various times during the past nine years. My fondest memory was when I presented an elderly lady with the special brand of hand cream that she had been longing for. I will never forget the look of joy and satisfaction on her face when I smoothed the cream onto her hands!

One lady I miss the most is Sylvie, a sophisticated well-groomed Egyptian lady who spoke several languages. Her favourite topic was fashion and I used to bring her glossy magazines. I would make an effort to dress nicely whenever I went because she loved how I would brighten up the place for her. The nursing home was such a dreary place in her eyes. I was flattered when Sylvie said I was like the sister that she’d never had, although I thought a 90-year-old couldn’t possibly have a 50-year-old sister but, really, there was no generation gap between us.

The Community Visitor experience

One thing for sure, I will know how to befriend a Community Visitor should I become a nursing home resident one day! Hopefully there will always be funding for this worthwhile scheme for years to come and more people will volunteer to visit the sometimes ‘forgotten ones’. All that is required is a little bit of time, patience and compassion. “Give and you will receive! I can vouch for that!”

By Helen Lam and Jenny Springett