By Mikayla van Loon
Volunteering had always been in Sheila Bentham’s blood but when her husband was diagnosed with cancer, becoming a volunteer was her saving grace in more ways than one.
Having to close their business, Sheila was ineligible for the pension at the time but needed a source of income while she cared for her husband Brian and so Centrelink’s 15 hour volunteer program allowed her to do just that.
Finding a position at Mercy Place Montrose, Sheila began with two mornings a week in 2016, something that has now grown to two full days and extras on special occasions.
When Brian passed away in October 2017, Sheila said she was “so lonely and beginning to close in,” so her daughter suggested getting a dog to keep her company.
“Maggie is my best friend. People say, ‘you’ve replaced Brian with a dog’, and he would be amused,” she said.
Bringing Maggie into work with her regularly, soon they became an inseparable pair at the aged care home.
“Maggie is so gentle and she goes up to the dementia patients and she puts her head on their lap and she gets a cuddle.
“So they made her their therapy dog. So we go in two days a week and she wanders around and goes up to everybody and gets a pat and she loves it and I love it too.”
Much of what Sheila and Maggie do is bring some joy and smiles to peoples faces but there is also a program of activities set out for Tuesdays and Thursdays including trivia and word games, footy tipping and crafts.
Maggie often becomes the star of the show but Sheila said this is because many residents have had to give up their own pets to move into care.
“They get very upset when they remember their pets and Maggie is so gentle that she will go in and she’ll just get patted.
“The residents, they find her comforting I think, even the ones in chairs that can’t really reach her, she will stand there and look at them as if she knows when ‘you can’t pat me, but I will let you look at me’.
“She becomes a familiar dog that they’re used to and being a big black poodle with curly hair, she’s probably more like a teddy bear.”
Although sometimes hard to watch people deteriorate as dementia takes hold, Sheila said she has made so many friends out of her time at Mercy Place.
“I’ve made such good friends there and it’s very hard when you lose them but I give as much as I get. It just gives me so much enjoyment.”
Sheila said sometimes all someone needs is conversation and friendship “and because I go in and say hello, it makes them feel wanted, like they’re not missing out.”
“It’s fulfilling, if you know that you’re helping people and Mercy Place, they know I’m a volunteer, they know I have limitations. They’re getting medical help but sometimes they just need somebody to talk to and cuddle.”
When she’s had a terrible day, Sheila said all she has to do is think about the difference she might have made in one of the residents’ lives the day before and “I feel as if I’ve done something good.”
The challenge in getting volunteers, particularly in the medical field, Sheila said has been impacted by Covid-19 but she feels she is in the safest place because of all the precautions to protect residents and staff.
“I missed it during Covid. I was glad to get back. These two days a week are my two days where I just have fun and talk and Maggie just does her thing.
“For something I started to do just to get an allowance has turned into my savior because Brian and I worked together for all our married life, we were always in the same place.
“When he died, they were so good to me and looked after me through that time. So it goes both ways. You volunteer for these people but they give you a lot back.”