Above: Winner of the Volunteer, ACCV State Award for Excellence, Jim Gilligan (right) with his proud daughter, Brenda Wells.
By Yasmin Noone
The name on every one’s lips at the Aged and Community Care Victoria (2011) State Awards for Excellence presentation dinner last week was Jim Gilligan.
At age 92, the former Darrell Lea manager epitomises all that most aspire to be in the golden years of life – active, well-respected and much loved.
He plays the electric guitar, worships Eric Clapton, rides a foot propelled scooter when his car in is the shop and runs a Wednesday music session for the pleasure of the residents at his daughter’s workplace, St Michael’s Aged Care Facility, Murrumbeena.
For the past 10 years, Mr Gilligan has visited the small private high care facility on a regular basis to serve Eucharist (a Christian sacrament) to bed-bound residents. What’s more, he travels 20 kilometres from his Victorian home in Chelsea to offer companionship to all the older people at St Michael’s, some of whom are much younger than he.
And so it was only fitting that last Thursday night – two weeks out from his 93rd birthday – Mr Gilligan took out the ACCV Award for Excellence in the volunteer category.
Sporting a strapping blue pin stripe suit, adorned with a long red scarf, Mr Gilligan, stood out as one of the night’s most humbling characters.
“An old man once said to me, ‘After you turn 80 you get your facts and fiction mixed up’,” Mr Gilligan said in good humour, as he accepted his award on stage.
“Well I hope that’s not the case tonight.”
In a one-on-one interview with AAA, Mr Gilligan also commented on how excited he was to be recognised.
“I’m over the moon…I didn’t expect to be doing this sort of thing at 92. But, by the grace of God, I am in [good] health.
“…I love all the residents and they love me. I am embarrassed sometimes by their kindness, particularly when it comes from someone who has [lost the ability to speak], who is just laying in bed. But when they see you and their eyes brighten up and they put their hand out, it’s lovely.
“I play guitar and have always enjoyed music regardless of what the music might be. If you see someone who is so quiet and not seemingly very interested [because of illness or they are dying], it’s great to see them lighten up when the music is played.”
While the night’s attendees paid tribute to Mr Gilligan’s devotion to the residents of St Michael’s, he spoke of how impressed he was by the dedication of aged care staff.
“I am amazed at the manner with which the staff at St Michael’s apply themselves to their job. They get up at 6am, come to work and work until 7pm. They are doing the one or two little things that I do and they are doing it all day. I admire that.
“[I had planned to go on stage, if I had won the award,] and tell a story about Eric Clapton. I was listening to him [on the radio] during the week and there was an elderly guest artist on his program which played magnificent music.
“The remarkable thing was that the guest was on continuous oxygen and [Eric] said how pleased he was to play with musicians like that. He said there’s one reason that they are so good and that is because they’ve got soul. That’s a commodity that’s so prevalent when you go into a nursing home.
“To see the staff and the manner with which they go on with their work and the way they do it, you know they’ve got soul…Heart and soul.
“Work from the heart and your life should be like that. And you will live to a ripe old age.”
A dedicated volunteer, a devoted father
The awards night continued on with further presentations, dinner and of course, dancing. Pretty soon after the band started, the music lover himself danced with his daughter in arms and led her across the ballroom floor. Mr Gilligan’s other five children, all in attendance to support their dad’s night of nights, looked on at their father admiringly.
When questioned why he volunteers, Mr Gilligan simply referred to his youngest daughter, Brenda Wells who works as the director of nursing at St Michael’s.
“I have a beautiful daughter and I had to help her.
“I probably would not have gone to St Michael’s if it wasn’t for Brenda. I live in Chelsea…which is quite a way away. I probably wouldn’t have known of St Michael’s if it had not been for my daughter.”
Ms Wells commented that her father began volunteering at St Michaels because she had difficulty in finding someone that would deliver the sacrament to residents, many of whom are palliative.
“Dad has been able to [share] his love for others at the facility. Like he says, dad finds it the most humbling experience being involved with the residents,” says Ms Wells.
“Dad sees all the little things with the residents and can read their body language very well. …He just brings them love and friendship and gives them time. Whether the resident has dementia or not, [spirituality] is something that is entrenched in a person, so having dad bring them Holy Communion to their bedside helps them come to fulfilment and contentment.”
Beaming from ear to ear, Ms Wells softly said, “My pop!” with pride.
“I am his baby daughter but there are six of us here. I am proud that I can employ my father. I am very proud that dad sees what I do.
“A lot of people don’t give aged care much glory. I have worked in aged care for 30 years. Mum and dad have always supported what I do. You’ve got to have people looking after the oldies.”