“It’s very important to me – I love what I do”: Palliative carers making a difference 

Palliative care worker Donna W
Palliative carer Donna Watling admits there is an inherent sadness in her work, but that is entwined with pride and an appreciation of the profound experiences she gets to witness as she assists people in the final days of their life.

The work is intimate and personal, and she often forms close bonds with her clients that endure beyond the client’s death. 

A favourite client could sing ‘Amazing Grace’ “as good as gold” though he was no longer able to speak, Donna recalled. Since he died, when Donna hears the song she still becomes “really emotional”, she told HelloCare. The man and his family “were beautiful people”.

Donna began her caring career 15 years ago in residential aged care, but is now with Home Instead, where she has been helping clients in their own homes for three years.

Palliative care work is all about making the client feel comfortable and relaxed, said Donna. Common tasks include giving the person a gentle hand massage, swabbing their mouth to keep it moist and clean, and reading to them. 

She also helps her clients preserve their dignity, for example, by making sure their clothes are clean and their hair is brushed. She loves taking the time to learn about the person’s life and hearing their stories, a luxury she did not have working in busy residential aged care homes.

Donna has attended all the funerals of her palliative care clients except one, and has been present at the death of up to 60 people. 

“I like to make a difference”

Donna finds palliative care hugely satisfying. “I like to make a difference at the end of their life,” she said. 

“It’s a really good feeling to do something special to help them in the last days. It makes a difference. It makes them comfortable and relaxed. They end up trusting you.”

Part of Donna’s role is also to support the family, particularly to answer their many questions.

Donna encourages them to keep talking to their loved one, even if it appears they are no longer listening. “They can still hear you,” she lets them know.

Hugs are also part of the job, and reassurance to family that they are helping simply by being there for the person in their final days.

Talking about death

Donna would like to see us all talk more about death and how we’d like to be cared for in our final days. If we were more open about it, then we might not be so fearful of it, she predicts. 

We would be better “prepared” when our own parents reach the end of their lives and for our own inevitable demise, too.

She was “petrified” when she encountered her first deceased body. “I cried for a week because I didn’t know much about it,” she said.

Getting through the tough times

There are difficult days. Sometimes her clients lash out at her, verbally and physically, but Donna does not hold that against them, explaining that it’s not intentional. “They can’t help it,” she explained.

Sometimes the families don’t treat her well. “You’ve just got to be nice anyway,” she said. “You’ve just got to keep working and doing what you’re there to do.”

The saddest times are when a person dies and no loved ones come to be with them. She has a client at the moment who doesn’t have family around her. 

“You hold it all in”

HelloCare asked Donna how she dealt with her emotions when her clients die.

“When you leave, you go home, and you get really upset,” she admitted. “You hold all of that in when you’re there.”

Her first palliative care experiences “really brought me undone pretty bad”, she shared.

These days she says, “It does hurt, and it does feel sad, but I don’t ever cry in front of them.

“I just go home and in the shower I’ll have a little cry sometimes. 

“But you know what? It’s also a relief because you’ve helped them go peacefully,” Donna expressed.

Her own family is there to provide uncomplicated but ongoing support. “I’ll say, ‘We lost a lady today’, and they ask, ‘Are you alright?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m right.’

“I’ll do this for the rest of my life if I can.”

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