Hospice Volunteer: 'This Work is Undeniably Important'
Posted on January 18, 2017 by Ann Jennings
Kay was the first patient I visited after my six-week hospice training. My volunteer coordinator placed me with Kay because she was 92 years old, lived in a nice facility in Wayland, MA, and although she had dementia, she was talkative and had an interesting background. This profile made for a perfect patient for a “newbie” hospice volunteer.
Hospice patient, volunteer get acquaintedIn the beginning, because of her dementia, I would reintroduce myself at each visit. I’d show her my name tag and tell her that her sons had asked me to visit. She would often assume that I was personal friends with her sons, and ask me how they were. I would go along with it a bit and say that they are checking in with our offices all the time. This gave her tremendous peace and seemed to fill her with gratitude that they were taking care of her. Kay was very content with her living arrangement and did not want to be a bother to anyone. She walked with a walker, and would always say, “At least I’m still walking, touch wood!”
Our first visits were in the summer, and we would spend our time outside looking at the birds and plants and enjoying the warmth of the sun. We chatted about her childhood in England, growing up with five siblings, and the sports and games they would play. She recalled her time as a nurse near an air force base during World War II, meeting her husband there, and moving to America to get married. These stories, and a few short details, were repeated almost every week. I learned to ask her general questions that would spark conversations and memories. I also learned to avoid asking questions that required her to recall specific details, as this would seem to embarrass her or get her flustered. Over the months, she began to recognize me, and I became a familiar friend to her.
Some days she would be in high spirits and we would sing songs from her youth, like “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Sunny Side of the Street,” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I would paint her nails or rub her hands gently with lotion and she thought this was “luxurious.” Other days when I arrived, she would be slumped in her chair with her head hanging low. I would help her sit up and straighten her sweater or blouse. I’d brush her hair and pull it off her face with a clip, and maybe offer her lipstick or Chapstick. This would always lift her spirits, and as she once told me, made her feel “presentable and cared for.”
Saying goodbyeIn February, I had gone two weeks without visiting, and thought I should check with my volunteer coordinator on Kay’s health status before I returned. I was told that her health had declined. When I arrived that day, Kay was in her bed, very thin and weak, and was struggling to breathe. I let her know I was there, pulled up a chair, and sat with her for an hour. I stroked her hand and kept her company. The next day, I called my volunteer coordinator to get an update and was told that Kay was “actively dying” and that her family had hired a nurse to sit vigil, so a vigil volunteer wasn’t needed. I still felt the need to go one last time and check on her and say goodbye.
My volunteer coordinator explained in great detail what “actively dying” meant. I felt very prepared when I arrived and saw Kay at the end. She was alone in her room, and I kissed her hello. She opened her eyes for a moment and seemed to recognize me. I held her hand and stood by her bed, and spoke quietly and calmly. I told her she was brave, that she was beautiful, and that she was loved. I sang our favorite songs for her. I very gently rubbed her hands. It was then, that Kay opened her eyes and said, “My sons?”
I reassured her that her two sons were on their way to see her, and then suggested that we “spruce her” to look pretty for them. I took a cloth and wiped her mouth, I brushed her hair – she even leaned forward for me to me brush the back. I straightened her nightgown and smoothed her sheets, then kissed her good bye. Within minutes of my driving away from the nursing home, I got a call that Kay passed away.
Finding new purpose
It is difficult to describe the profound effect this experience had on me, and truth be told, it has taken some time to process. I was not sad that Kay died, nor scared by the skeleton she had become, or the rattling moans of her breath. Instead, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I felt honored that I could be with her in her last hours, to offer her comfort and help her prepare for her final visit with her sons, and then ultimately to leave this world in peace, feeling “presentable and cared for.”
I came to volunteer with hospice because I wanted to use my gifts to be of service to others, and hopefully develop a new purpose for my life. My time with Kay has proven to me that I am on the right path, and reaffirmed that this work is undeniably important and exactly what I should be doing.
While our website will give you a better understanding about hospice care and the services that Care Dimensions provides, no one can tell the true story quite like our patients, families and staff. We encourage you to take a moment and read their stories and watch our videos.
You’ll be forever changed as you learn about life’s difficult final journey and the amazing patients, caregivers and staff who’ve embarked on the experience together.