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One AHP’s Experience Of The Aged Care Volunteer Visitors Scheme

How do we define fulfilment as an allied health professional? Sometimes it can go beyond the clinical or academic facets of professional life—for some AHPs, volunteer work can be that missing link.

This has certainly been the case for physiotherapist and research project manager Nicki Atkinson, a passionate volunteer with the Aged Care Volunteer Visitors Scheme (ACVVS). ACVVS is an initiative funded by The Australian Government aimed at assisting older people who may be socially isolated, lonely, or who don’t have the opportunity to leave their homes very often. What’s interesting about this—what makes it such a great story—is the idea of a healthcare professional contributing to a person’s health, wellbeing and longevity through companionship.

“I’m a physio by background, and I started doing more project work, which is behind a desk. I absolutely love working with older people, especially as a physio, and I was really missing that interaction,” she explained in an interview with ABC Radio’s Hobart Drive program.

We chatted with Nicki recently about her volunteer work with the ACVVS, and why she finds the experience so enriching.

Tell us a bit about your professional background and career, from physiotherapy to your current capacity in research project management.

I graduated physiotherapy from the University of Queensland in 2015 and started my physiotherapy career at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital in their new graduate program. I then moved to London and worked in various hospitals as a locum, and travelled as much as I could on weekends. Once my two-year UK visa had finished, I moved to Colombia to learn Spanish and salsa as a bit of career break. That was sadly interrupted by COVID in March 2020, and I had to return back to Australia. I knew I wanted to see health impacts on a larger scale, so decided to study my Master of Public Health. Since completing my Masters in 2021, I have been working on health projects across Australia and internationally, including most recently as the Research Project Manager at AHP Workforce, which undertakes allied health workforce planning and strategy projects.

How did you get involved with ACVVS?

I’m a physiotherapist by background and have moved into project work over the last few years. I started to miss the daily interaction with patients, especially older patients, so I found the ACVVS program online, and signed up! They put me in touch with Harry.

Are there any aspects of your profession that prepared you for volunteering with ACVVS?

As an allied health professional, you learn how to communicate and empathise with people from all backgrounds, especially older people. I strongly believe that allied health professionals are some of the best communicators I know. That’s why they are perfect for volunteering for ACVVS!

Tell us a little bit about Harry and your relationship

Harry is 84 years old, and lives on his own with his much-loved cat. His friends have disappeared for one reason or another, and while he has a really supportive family, they have their lives to lead and are scattered around the country. Harry lost his beautiful wife recently, and gets really lonely, especially at nighttime. He can be sad some weeks, and I feel really grateful that I’m able to spend time with him and brighten his day, just by being there.

Why do you enjoy volunteering for ACVVS?

As I mentioned, I do project work nowadays, and work remotely which can be quite isolating. I really enjoy spending lunch breaks with Harry and having someone to talk to. We go for walks along the beach with a beautiful groodle named Basil, talk about books we’ve read, and sometimes share an occasional Tasmanian gin and tonic on Friday afternoons. Harry has so much wisdom to provide and has given me some great guidance.

When you’re volunteering, are you conscious that you’re actively doing healthcare work? (Staving off loneliness extends lifespan, reduces risk of chronic illness?)

No, I’m not conscious that I’m actively doing healthcare work! I really enjoy spending time with Harry, so it doesn’t feel like work at all! I do think the program really helps Harry feel less lonely, and if I had the time to volunteer with more older people I would. I just hope others sign up to help really deserving people like Harry.

What is the most rewarding part of doing this sort of work?

I love that I can make a huge impact on Harry’s life just by visiting him once a week. You can see an immediate increase in his mood as soon as I walk in the door. His face really lights up and it fills my heart with joy. I feel like it’s a really easy way to give back to the older generation who have given us so much.

What is the most memorable part of volunteering with ACVVS so far?

Being interviewed on ABC Radio about my relationship with Harry was pretty cool! I loved sharing my experience. There are so many older Australians waiting to be matched with volunteers. I really hope at least one person signed up to the program after hearing the radio interview.

How would you say that this work benefits your professional life?

Volunteering with Harry benefits my professional life because it provides me with a lovely social balance while remote working. Breaking up my work day by having lunch or going for a beach walk with Harry means I am more focussed and energised for the afternoon, and therefore more productive.

My work with AHP Workforce supports large organisations to make changes at scale designed to help address workforce issues, increasing efficiency and accessibility of allied health services while meeting workforce needs essential for sector sustainability like developing career pathways, and improving workforce satisfaction and retention. While I’ve missed the face-to-face work with my physio clients since my career change, there are many many clients—many ‘Harrys’—benefiting from the positive impacts of these projects for every organisation and allied health professional that the project supports.

Nicki Atkinson is a practising physiotherapist based in Tasmania, who works as the Research Project Manager at AHP Workforce, within the HealthWork International group. Follow Nicki on LinkedIn | If you wish to learn more about volunteering with ACVVS, visit the Aged Care Volunteer Visitors Scheme (ACVVS) webpage. | Listen to the ABC radio interview with Nicki here: Make an incredible difference to someone’s life just by being their friend – ABC listen

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