Vanessa Kirkham, Respite Coordinator, Port August Respite Cottage

I commenced working for Calvary five years ago initially as a Support Worker in Flinders Far North. My previous experience had been managing mentoring programs within education for 25 years, working with young people. So at 50+ it came as a surprise to many that I would resign from this job and move into Aged Care.

In 2016 after working as a Support Worker for a few months I was offered the opportunity to move into a position to coordinate the Flinders Far North Respite Cottage. I had reservations and questioned my lack of experience in this new field, but it has proved to be a positive and rewarding experience. My motivation to change careers was my mum being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010 not long after she retired. I watched this vital, capable women who could seemingly manage a 100 tasks at once rapidly change. Quickly mum became dependent of her family to manage everyday tasks and I pondered why this disease knocked on my mum’s door? I tried for a long time to fathom the reason why her? Why my family?

Early on in my job as cottage coordinator I recall sitting down with a family who was in a similar position as me. They were caring at home for their mum who had been recently diagnosed with dementia, the sense of loss, anger and frustration that were feeling was evident on their faces. It became clear to me in that moment why I was travelling on this journey with my mum and family. My ability to share their pain through my own steep learning curve with mum gave me insight and deep empathy for them as individuals, as a family and their situation. ‘Empathy is feeling with people’ – Brene Brown.

I realised that all knowledge is not learnt from books or through diligent study. What we learn from our lived experience and this should never be underestimated or undervalued. I became and continue to be highly motivated to offer positive, fun and engaging opportunities to older people particularly those living with dementia. Occasions to laugh and live, not merely exist. In 2019 my mum’s dance with dementia entered its final stage and came to a peaceful end just before COVID came along. I found solace in my work and learnt the heartbreaking lesson of how to say goodbye to a treasured and beloved mum/parent.

Through my work with Calvary, I have learnt that no team can experience success without having shared goals, desire and drive. I am so lucky to have such a team working alongside me here at the Cottage. I publicly thank each of them for their support, hard work and desire to strive to give the best of themselves to support our cottage clients to the best of our ability. I am definitely not saying every day is a walk in the park and does not bring challenges, but one of the many quotes from my favourite movie Patch Adams helps us deal with anything that is thrown our way. ‘If you focus on the problem you can’t see the solution.’

No matter what our field ‘every moment is a choice.’ We can make choices to support our own personal needs or we can make choices that support the needs of others, namely our colleagues and clients. We can see our clients as a sum of their deficits or we can see them as the people they are. Individuals with goals and dreams. I thank our clients for their friendship and willingness to share their stories. To their families who allow and trust us as a team to journey with them.

My final quote from Patch is my mantra: ‘You treat a disease you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you will win no matter what the outcome.’ If you are reading this and have never seen this movie, please do yourself a favour and watch it and learn from its lessons of being for others.

In closing, at no stage have I regretted my career change the lessons I have learnt and the experiences I have gained from an older cohort of people has been enriching and inspiring.