I was touring a hospice care center when the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies drew me to the kitchen, where I found a group of girls from the local high school. They told me that once a week they come to bake cookies for the families and patients in the care center. What a terrific way to enable young people to express their budding instincts to serve – and to create ardent ambassadors for hospice in the community.
When I’m assessing a hospice program, one key measure of quality is the number of active volunteers and their level of involvement. How many volunteers do you have? What kind of things do the volunteers do for hospice? How long have they been volunteering? As we move forward in this new world of hospice and health care reform, volunteers are going to have an even greater impact on the lives of people who are facing serious illness and death.
What kind of person is likely to volunteer at a hospice? Most often, volunteers will be people who have had a positive hospice experience through the care given to a dying loved one, and who want to give back in a meaningful way. When their own acute grief has subsided, they can be very effective volunteers with patients and families going through similar situations. But don’t overlook younger people like those cookie bakers, who want to discover purposeful ways to serve others. Hospices offer a great opportunity for younger people to utilize their energy and enthusiasm in a mutually beneficial way.
Whether they’re visiting patients, doing office clerical work, working in fund raising, giving community presentations, counseling at kids’ camps, or leading choirs, volunteers are vital to comprehensive hospice patient care. Very often the simple act of sitting with the patient, so the caregiver can go to the bank or the hairdresser or grocery shop, is a tremendous gift. When family or friends visit patients, they themselves can be distraught and not able to give the support that the patient or family needs. It is the hospice volunteer who can provide that neighborly strength and caring.
Many hospices have volunteers called 11th hour or vigil volunteers. When someone enters the final stages of death, the family is likely to be exhausted and distressed. The 11th hour volunteers are on call to sit with those patients until the patient’s death. Another great volunteer opportunity is the Tuck-In program in which trained volunteers call patients at the weeks end to say, “I want to make sure everything is going well for you, and see if you need anything before the weekend. Do you have enough supplies and medications? Are you having any problems that we can tell the doctors or nurses about?” These friendly callers remind the patients and their families of the caring aspect of the hospice, and help reduce the number of calls over the weekends by being proactive instead of reactive. Patients’ and families’ needs are met before they have to ask.
Hospices are using volunteers to do creative things such as video life reviews, massage and Reiki, leading bereavement groups, Pet therapy, and much more. Teenage volunteers who have either experienced the death of a loved one or who just want to give back can be a great support to kids with parents or grandparents who are dying. Volunteers can be the greeters who give tours of your facility, or they can help in the kitchen. Some hospices engage with local garden clubs that provide flowers or create lovely settings outside patients’ windows. At our hospice in Gainesville Florida volunteers from the local koi club maintained our koi pond, and local artists and musicians provided performances and art exhibits.
Volunteers want to have a meaningful way to contribute and hospice is a remarkable place to achieve that. By giving them that opportunity we create a circle of generosity that benefits everyone it touches – and sends volunteers out into the community as informed, enthusiastic advocates eager to spread the word about the great things we’re doing.