For some people living with HIV/AIDS, taking a trip to the supermarket or putting on a load of washing can be an exhausting or even impossible task. For these people, a visit once a week from a volunteer carer can be the life-ring that keeps their heads above water.

Nicola Addison started volunteering with ACON’s Community Support Network (CSN) in 1989. When she started, the role of carer was different. Volunteers were dealing with critically ill patients and most of their work was at the bedside.

I got involved because people were becoming very sick -“ back then there was a lot more hands-on practical care needed. Now it’s more likely to be a bit of shopping or cleaning for people rather than nursing.

But while the role of the CSN carer has changed, the need for volunteers had not, Addison said.

There are a lot of people who aren’t doing very well. Or people who are doing a part-time job -“ they might be well enough to work a few hours a week or meet their friends for a coffee, but that doesn’t mean they are well enough to stay on top of their housework or cook for themselves.

Since joining CSN Addison has worn a number of hats within the organisation -“ from carer to event organiser.

I guess that’s one of the reasons that I’ve stayed involved for so long -“ you get to do so many different things, she said.

On the benefits of volunteering, Addison said it was more than just a warm feeling: They really feel they’re doing something. And instead of wanting to do something really big and change the world but not having time to do it, people feel they can put in two or four hours a week and make a real difference.

Scott Berry has worked as the CSN care manager for only a short time, but he also a history with the organisation going back to the late 1980s.

Berry said the Network was facing a small emergency, with the number of clients growing beyond the number of carers.

It’s grown quite significantly -“ in the past couple of weeks we’ve had 14 new clients -“ and we just don’t have the volunteers at the moment. So this is a real call for help, he said.

Berry said it was wrong to suggest advances in HIV/AIDS drug treatments had taken away the need for CSN and similar services.

There is still a need for this sort of service. The issues for people with HIV at this point in the epidemic have become what we could call -˜sleeping issues’. There are a lot of drug treatment side effects.

It’s true [caring] is not the dramatic experience it once was. In the early days of the epidemic lots of the work was bedpans and nursing -“ now what we do is washing or ironing and chatting over a cup of tea while we do the washing up. It’s become a very practical service -“ volunteers do some shopping, cooking, take the dog for a walk, do some stuff around the house. It’s practical help for people who are quite severely ill.

The training course, on-going support and regular volunteer social events meant CSN had benefits for the carers as well as the clients -“ besides the obvious good feelings that come from helping someone in need.

One of the great things about CSN is the training program -“ carers meet a whole lot of other people who are motivated for similar reasons. It opens a door to a big community of volunteers. The training program is quite comprehensive. If people are thinking about careers in welfare, counselling or welfare generally, it’s a great thing to do.

And the program has helped thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS remain independent and in their homes.

We want to empower people with HIV to be able to live comfortable and happy lives.

Berry said CSN could help not only the clients but also the carers. Volunteers came from all walks of life, Berry said, and were a mix of men and women, gay and straight of just about every age.

The Community Support Network was established in 1984. Since then the 1,800 volunteers have been trained and come on board.

The next CSN training weekend will be held on Saturday 31 August and Sunday 1 September, with a few extra hours on Sunday 8 September.

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