Gwen Clough embodies community spirit and is one of 42 Palliative Care South East (PCSE) volunteers that support our clients and families on their palliative care journey.
But finding her true calling as a companion volunteer to people with a life-limiting or terminal illness was a journey in itself that began, almost 60 years ago, when Gwen joined her daughters’ kindergarten committee and cut her teeth coordinating the annual fete and fundraising.
Next, Gwen took on volunteer leadership roles in the Mother’s Club at Hampton Park Primary where she organised the breakfast club and helped with reading.
A champion for her local community, Gwen was also an active volunteer with the Hampton Park Progress Association for two decades.
As her daughters grew up, Gwen became a Brownie Leader (teaching the art of helping and volunteering to the next generation) and soon became the Hampton Park District Commissioner for Girl Guides Victoria.
And through all of that, she worked on reception at Dandenong-based bus manufacturer Volgren Australia for 23 years!
After retiring from Volgren, Gwen spent four years as a weekly volunteer supporting single mothers and victims of family violence with the Salvation Army in Cranbourne before she found her true calling as a Companion Volunteer with PCSE.
And now, for the past 20 years, this amazing Grandmother has dedicated herself to supporting people diagnosed with a life-limiting or terminal illness and their families.
Losing two husbands to cancer, and nursing them to the end, means Gwen has a deep understanding of the end-of-life journey these individuals, their carers and families are on.
She knows that being diagnosed with a terminal illness takes a huge toll on the mental health and wellbeing of these individuals and their families too. After all, she was one of those families twice.
“I remind them they are still living and help them continue to do things they enjoy like shopping or going out for lunch, engaging in conversation about life, love and the world. I’m not afraid of death as I’ve travelled this road before,” Gwen said.
Gwen takes clients shopping, to medical appointments, for walks or coffee but, mostly, she just sits with them and listens. She has rocked and sung nursery rhymes to dying babies, held the hands of grieving widows and sat at the bedsides of many as they share their anger and fears and she lifts the weight of secrets off their chests.
Gwen is quick to point out that people who are dying still want to discuss the everyday aspects of life. They don’t want to be constantly focused on their medical treatment and diagnosis. They still enjoy jokes and want to talk about their families and plans for the weekend.
“I see the living soul that needs a companion and bring them out into the sunshine. Sometimes I help people, who don’t have much to smile about, laugh,” she said when asked to describe her role.
The support of companion volunteers like Gwen also provides respite to carers enabling them time out from what can be a demanding 24/7 role.
“People can become socially isolated when they are caring for the terminally ill. My support for their loved one means they can go lunch with friends and stay connected to their community and those who can support them through their grief,” Gwen said.
After two decades of befriending the dying, the 84-year-old is humble about her experience and says she feels privileged to be invited into the homes of families at such a vulnerable time in their lives.
“I often think I get much more out of this than they do,” she said her eyes twinkling.
These days, Gwen also shares her experience and wisdom by generously mentoring new volunteers.
And she is so passionate about supporting our clients and their families that she has raised thousands of dollars for PCSE as she knows that donations and fundraising fill the gap between government funding and the actual cost of delivering quality services.
“We didn’t have palliative care when I lost two husbands to cancer but I had amazing family and community support that meant I could care for them at home. Their acts of kindness and caring changed my life and helped me cope with the unimaginable.”
After a lifetime of volunteering with the community’s most vulnerable, Gwen is all too aware that not everyone can count on that kind of support.
“So that’s why I give back and help others cope and, every week, I see faces that light up with smiles of pleasure and gratitude.”
“The way I see it, I’m giving a little bit of my time to someone who is running out of time and improving their quality of life. Who wouldn’t want to do that?” Gwen asked.
Gwen Clough is a finalist in the 2023 Westfield Local Hero Awards for Fountain Gate Shopping Centre. Click here to give her your vote!
If you would like to volunteer with us, click here and find out more about how you can get involved.
If you don’t have time to volunteer, you can still support the work of Gwen and our team by making an online donation. Your support will enable us to train volunteers like Gwen and ensure everyone who needs us gets access to our services. Every donation, no matter how big or small, helps support our work.