Palliative Care NSW Volunteer Support Services Programme

Within Aboriginal community

White folk map the land, on paper, with scientific detachment, as if a disembodied thing viewed from afar. Black folk wear the land like a garment, around their shoulders, close to their skin, sustained by it and entangled within it.

So too it is with family.

To understand the Aboriginal notions of volunteering is to first understand their traditional cultural understandings of family. Aboriginal family is kinship, an expansive network of familial and extra-familial relationships bound by a common sense of community, inclusive more than exclusive, with strong bonds of mutual-obligation. To provide gratuitous support to a member of your community is to provide support to a family member. White folk might call this ‘volunteering’. Black folk would say ‘it’s family’, as if ‘family’ serves both as a noun and a verb.

To speak of ‘black’ folk as a singular group is erroneous. Within the Aboriginal community there is a diversity of cultural practices across the traditional-contemporary spectrum. Kinship is richly traditional, but there are many who don’t hold so fast to traditional values.

Likewise within ‘white’ culture there is a spectrum of family-related cultural practices. Many cultures tend towards higher rates of family-affinity. I remember the strength of family bonds expressed within Lebanese and Polish families that I have known.

So the contested understandings of family and volunteering is a feature, more or less, of each cultural group with volunteering featuring less dominantly within traditional cultural expressions.

Land, country, is equally significant in traditional cultural expressions. For a dying Aboriginal person who holds fast to traditional beliefs, aka a person ‘finishing-up’, the location of their final death is important.

When an Aboriginal person travels for treatment out of country they leave their kin behind and may value from the support of a volunteer. This is one setting for Palliative Care Volunteering within the Aboriginal community.

Bridging the divide between traditional culture and contemporary health care in-country is another opportunity. Contemporary health care is a place of problem identification and solution within which cultural practices are easily constructed as a different ‘problem’ to be solved. The expression of grief alone within a huge traditional kinship group can look like a form of community-paralysis to an outsider. Assisting existing Aboriginal health professionals to bridge contemporary and traditional cultures is another opportunity for Palliative Care Volunteers.

One clinician offered this insight; “To be a palliative Care Volunteer you need peace in your life. Many Aboriginal people…don’t have peace in their lives because of their family circumstances (and entrenched patterns of disadvantage)”.

Engaging members of the Aboriginal community in roles as Palliative Care Volunteers is possible, has been done, and will yield benefits for our collective community, and will equip Palliative Care Services to be more available to traditional cultural groups wherever they exist.