Elizabeth Uding was just about keeping it together as her partner Peter clung to life in ICU.

Key points:

  • Support from community transport drivers helped Elizabeth Ulding cope when her partner was unwell
  • There are a number of community transport programs running in Victoria, with a new one starting in Geelong to help vulnerable residents access vaccines
  • Victoria receives $7 million in funding, compared with New South Wales’ $87 million and Queensland’s $45 million

He had heart surgery in March during what should have involved a two-week hospital stay.

But it didn’t go to plan — the doctors had trouble restarting Peter’s heart, and then could not wake him.

He was in hospital for six months, and for some of it, on the brink of death.

Even though Ms Uding is the resilient type, all of this, and the isolation brought about by COVID, was almost too much to handle.

“I tried to be strong and I got there. But a few times I broke down big time in my corner because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

However, support came in an unlikely form: the driver who took her to and from the hospital each day.

Provided by Eastern Volunteers’ community transport, a car would take her to The Alfred hospital, which would otherwise been a five-hour public transport round trip from her home in Kilsyth.

A photo of a man and woman smiling at the camera

Ms Uding is relieved her partner Paul is no longer in hospital.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwast)

It was more than just transport — Ms Uding said the drivers were always there to chat and comfort her, and one driver always had a coffee ready to go.

“They were almost like family,” she said.

Ms Uding’s partner is now at home and slowly regaining his strength each day, which she says is a relief.

And even though they do not need to be transported anywhere, she said Eastern Volunteers continue to keep in touch, just to make sure she is doing OK.

Four decades of community transport

Eastern Volunteers has run a community transport program for about 43 years and have a client base of 1,400 people in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

A woman smiling at the camera

Eastern Volunteers’ Vivienne Cunningham-Smith said their community transport program has 1400 clients.(Supplied: Eastern Volunteers)

Chief executive Vivienne Cunningham-Smith said it was mainly for people over 65 who could not use other forms of transport to get to appointments, go shopping, or participate in social activities, and was the stage before formal patient transport.

She said they had paid volunteer drivers who were trained in a range of areas, including aged care and “cultural competency”.

Ms Cunningham-Smith said a benefit of this program was their drivers were the first people to notice deterioration in their clients’ health, and were able to connect them with services they might need.

But they have taken on a new role during the pandemic — as people were stuck at home, she said they ran an online shopping program and regularly kept in contact with clients to check on their wellbeing.

Now, as restrictions lift, they will be supporting their clients’ transition back into everyday life.

A photo of two older people holding hands lovingly while seated

Elizabeth Uding said the transport that took her to and from hospital when Peter was unwell helped her cope.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

“Some are scared to open their front door and come back down into community because they might contract COVID — that would be it for them,” transport services manager Marnie O”Loughlin said.

Vaccination bus

Volunteering Geelong, in collaboration with the local council and Barwon Health, recently started a community bus program based on the Eastern Volunteers model.

Barwon Health High Risk Accommodation Response Unit lead Sue Harman said they transported vulnerable people, including those living in public housing, caravan parks, and rooming houses, to the vaccination hub at the old Ford factory site.

A photo of three people wearing masks standing next to a bus which says 'Volunteering Geelong' on it

Barwon Health high risk accomodation response team leader Sue Harman [middle] with two vaccination bus participants.(Supplied: Volunteering Geelong)

She said many did not have a car or were unable to use public transport, while others had a fear of needles or were not able to use or access the internet to book an appointment.

“We also had an opportunity during their 15-minute wait after the vaccination to engage with people and talk through any other health or social supports that they needed,” she said.

She said they made it a “fun experience” by giving participants a “goodie bag” afterwards.

“They felt really appreciative and thankful for that.”

‘Unmet need’

According to data on the Commonwealth Home Support Programme from 2018-19, Victoria received $7 million from the federal government, whereas New South Wales was allocated about $87 million and Queensland about $45 million.

VICTAS Community Transport Association executive officer Suzanne Phoenix said this disparity was because the Victorian government used to fund community transport, but did not have a “defined community transport program” like other states.

She said about 75 per cent of this funding was taken on by the Commonwealth government as part of the Commonwealth Home Support Programme (CHSP) in 2016.

Because the Victorian government had given a lower amount to community transport compared with other states and territories, this disparity was passed on to the federal government.

A white car with Eastern Volunteers written on the side

Eastern Volunteers run a community transport program for Melbourne’s east.(Supplied: Eastern Volunteers)

Ms Phoenix is calling for Victoria to “define” community transport program in the state and for the federal government to make funding more equal across the country, and for data to be released on community transport demand.

A federal Department of Health spokesperson said since Victoria transitioned to the Commonwealth Home Support Programme (CHSP), “funding per capita for community transport in Victoria has increased faster than other states such as NSW”.

The spokesperson said funding for community transport could be accessed through other service types in the CHSP and indicated there would be further reform through the establishment of a new support-at-home program in July 2023.

The Victorian government has been contacted for comment.

Posted , updated 

Lifeline that eased Elizabeth’s worries during partner’s illness
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