Meet Northern Beaches volunteer Elaine Searle. A former English teacher and celebrant, Elaine spends her retirement celebrating the lives of others by writing the biographies of patients in palliative care.
Those who participate in the Hammond Care biography program tend to do so for the families that they leave behind. For some, their biography focuses on their early life or their proudest achievements. For others, it is a way to share their customs with their young children so that they understand the rich heritage of their culture.
“The part that I enjoy the most is learning about other people’s lives,” explains Elaine, “I hear some fascinating stories. I’ve had emails from people who’ve thanked me because their mum had shared details that they’d never heard before. They are so happy to have those stories.”
For Elaine, each biography is a privilege to write. She meets with each patient regularly and records every conversation. Often the process stirs up long-forgotten memories that create moments of joy and laughter. For some, being given an opportunity to recall their most significant life stories is a mindful relief from the seemingly endless routine of doctors, treatment and pain.
After each meeting, Elaine carefully transcribes each word making sure that grammar and spelling are accurate. An editor makes the final checks and returns the document to Elaine who adds photographs that the patient has provided. Once the biography is completed, two copies are printed and bound and presented to the patient or their family, with a copy on a memory stick. After that, all documents are deleted to ensure complete confidentiality.
There are some individuals who have made a particular impact on Elaine and to think of them triggers emotion, “It’s sad to connect with them and then say goodbye. The young ones don’t want to go, but the older ones are ready.”
“It’s sad to connect with them and then say goodbye. The young ones don’t want to go, but the older ones are ready.”
It was in 1998 when Elaine’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer that she began to understand the importance of end-of-life care, as well as the need for carer respite. For six months, Elaine and her husband provided 24/7 care for her mother at their home because she was terrified of nursing homes and afraid to be left alone. “It was tiring but it was a privilege to be able to be with her when she died,” she explains.
The personal experience of supporting her mother through her final days inspired Elaine to become a volunteer with Hammond Care. Carers don’t often have the opportunity to do simple tasks like visiting the shops or enjoying a well-earned coffee break. Respite volunteers, like Elaine, provide invaluable time to support those providing full-time care.
Although she no longer volunteers in respite care, her work as a biographer is a meaningful experience for those sharing their life stories.
“It is a gift for the family from the person who is dying and it’s a life-enhancing experience for me.”