Willing Hearts of Hospice
Volunteers are the willing hearts of hospice, giving their time to do little things for patients that no one else does for them. They provide companionship to hospice patients in their homes, assisted living centers or nursing facilities. Patients and families often request volunteer visits and, depending upon what the patient likes, volunteers might read, share stories and memories, play music and games, pray or just listen. Some volunteers have specialties, such as pet therapy dogs; others have massage skills. For many patients, volunteers are a vital human presence when they are feeling their most bleak and vulnerable. A shared laugh, a story, a held hand — these are precious gifts that take away fear and anxiety and bring a smile.
“Volunteers are an integral part of the team,” says Adriana Cuberos, volunteer coordinator for AseraCare. “We provide ongoing education and training for them. They help us track how the patient is doing through the disease. The patients really appreciate them and often they become quite close friends.”
“We decide with the family and team whether a volunteer can help them,” says Adriana. “If they are not totally aware, the volunteer just maintains a presence — he or she might play soft music or gently squeeze the patient’s hand so they know someone is there with them. It’s a comfort.” Volunteer coordinators try to match patients with volunteers who share similar interests. “We put people together who will enjoy each other’s company,” says Adriana. “Some patients ask for volunteers to read the Bible or pray. Others want to talk about something fun. It gives a little escape, a little diversion. They might shoot the breeze about a sports game or about their favorite TV programs.”
A volunteer can sit with a patient while the caregiver goes out.
Lindsay, a volunteer in Georgia, says she brings joy and happiness to her patients in nursing homes. “One lady likes jokes, so I bring my laptop and we look up jokes and riddles online,” she says. “One lady likes chocolate so I bring her chocolates. Another one likes books on tape. The patients appreciate my visits because, although they may see their family, they don’t want to be a burden and talk about their pain. They need a new face to tell their stories to.”
Volunteer Paul Olson visits a gentleman who loves to play trivia. “He wouldn’t be able to do that if he didn’t have a volunteer,” says Paul. For another patient, who passed away, Paul brought special CDs. “Music is a universal language and she loved the big-band sound from the 1940s,” he says. “When I walked into the room she’d smile and sometimes I’d stay for two hours playing music.”
Larry has developed a special rapport with several ladies he visits in a nursing home. “I call my patients my ladies,” he jokes. “They develop a special place in your heart. I love them and really look forward to seeing them each Wednesday. They light up when they see me and that’s the most gratifying thing in the world.” One of Larry’s ladies was one of the first airline stewardesses. “I bring an atomizer of perfume and give her a squirt on her wrist. She smiles from ear to ear.” Another woman has two daughters and shared with Larry that she really wished she had a son. “I told her she could adopt me, and she thought that was wonderful.”
When Larry discovered one of his ladies was a former music teacher who loved classical music, he brought her a radio. “I put it next to her bed and tuned in National Public Radio because they play classical music from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.” he says. “I thought it would provide company for her when people aren’t around.”
Volunteers often form strong bonds with their patients. Nicky, a volunteer A volunteer can sit with a patient while the caregiver goes out. 55 for AseraCare in Atlanta, Ga., tells the story of one patient she had grown particularly fond of who was very close to death. “I’m a hugger — I’m Italian,” she explains. “Laverne and I used to sit on the bed and watch television. So when I saw she had lapsed into a coma, I curled up in bed with her and held her hand. I told her what she meant to me.”
Nicky also brings her own special skills to patients. “I’m a clown and I’ve found that when the clown visits, people really open up. I play a kazoo and we sing songs. I do pocket magic. The clown makes people laugh, which is wonderful because depression is so prevalent in nursing homes. One of the ladies asked me to come as the clown because she said it made her feel joyful. When you can help bridge the pain of their leaving their loved ones, that’s what makes us know that what we are doing is valuable. I’m there a brief period of time with these people, but if I can make that time quality time for them, that’s what it’s about.”
Volunteers also bring respite to harried caregivers who often can’t find time for the demands of their own lives. “A lot of people get so involved in caregiving that they tend to lose touch with everything else,” says Adriana. “A volunteer can sit with a patient while the caregiver goes out for a meal or a movie. It gives them a breather to reconnect with themselves. Sometimes caregivers lose their identity because they’ve been so involved in being the caregiver.” Volunteers all say that they get much more out of their visits than the patients do. “There’s a lot coming back to me,” says Len. “I feel blessed I’m given the opportunity to spend time with them.”
A Big Hug for the Dog
Pet therapy can work wonders on the human soul — not to mention the advantage of sensory stimulation and therapeutic touch. Renee Gasch, volunteer coordinator for AseraCare in Bloomington, Minn., tells how much Bill enjoys visits from a cute little dog named Sammy. “Normally Bill doesn’t speak often or clearly, but when Sammy comes to visit, Bill lights up,” she says. “He’ll say how much he loves dogs, or how soft his coat is. He starts reminiscing about pets that he’s had. With a nonverbal patient, it’s often hard to figure out what will strike a chord. Being able to pet and enjoy the dog has been so positive for Bill’s quality of life. Sometimes the dog draws a crowd of patients and it makes Bill the center of attention, and he enjoys that also.”