Nancy Usher watched as the chaplain started to sing to the dying man. He was a veteran, and knew his time was drawing near as family members sat nearby during the vigil. The chaplain sang a final line, “Love before you, love after you.” The veteran saluted, and passed away shortly afterwards.
It was a rare moment where Nancy, who has been volunteering in hospice care for nine years, allowed herself to break down into tears.
“It’s a moment I will never forget,” she said.
Care Dimensions, formerly known as Hospice of the North Shore and Greater Boston, is a specialized hospice and palliative care facility that strives to make the final moments of the lives of its patients as comfortable as possible.
Central to those efforts are the nearly 450 volunteers that go “wherever a patient calls home,” according to Director of Volunteer Services Sheryl Meehan, to chat, play cards, or even take patients to medical appointments or pick up medicine. Volunteers may participate in more than 20 capacities, from working in a kitchen to serving as an advisor to the Board of Directors.
Two of those volunteers, Usher and Kitty Martin, are beloved within the Care Dimensions ranks for their dedicated service and angelic benevolence. The two met when Nancy was teaching a literature class at the Danvers Senior Center, and became best friends.
Nancy and Kitty talk of their volunteering efforts matter-of-factly, as though it’s a simple choice that they would make time and time again – and, as a matter of fact, they do.
Nancy was a teacher in Melrose for 36 years. Ten months after retiring, her husband passed away. She took up volunteering at the recommendation of a friend to channel her energy and give hope to others.
“It’s a two-way street,” said Nancy. “When we go in and we visit a patient, we come away feeling pretty good about ourselves as well as hopefully offering comfort to the patient. So we do get something out of it that’s positive and rewarding.”
Kitty spoke of her upbringing, living as a young, German child in a Russian concentration camp in what was post-World War II Serbia. She saw her mother die of starvation when she was around six years old, before she managed to escape the camp with other members of her family. She came to America in 1959.
“I remember death all around me,” she said. “It’s part of life in my mind.”
Despite society’s general penchant for misery and revenge that stained her formative years, Kitty never harbored ill-will towards anybody, and chose to give love back to the world instead. Her perspective on death, she said, has greatly helped her identify with hospice patients.
“To me it’s kind of spiritual,” said Kitty. “It’s a walk that we all have to take and we have to be this nice, friendly visitor to make that walk a little bit easier. It is just very fulfilling. It makes you feel so good to do something caring like that.”
Nancy and Kitty specialize their volunteering by spending the most time with patients suffering from mild to severe forms of dementia.
“If a patient wants to sit by the door, a 90-year-old woman, and wait for her mother to come pick her up, you sit with her and say ‘I’ll wait with you,’” said Nancy. “You are in their reality, not your own reality.”
To better understand the plight of dementia patients, Nancy and Kitty underwent special training from Second Wind Dreams, an international nonprofit corporation based in Georgia, to be certified trainers of the “Virtual Dementia Tour.”
The program places healthy individuals into the shoes of a person with dementia – literally. Special shoes are worn to simulate pain from neuropathy, two pairs of gloves are put on to nullify the sensation of touch, blurred goggles are equipped, and headphones that blast a cacophony of distracting noises are placed over the ears.
“Kitty and I have seen trained aides come out with tears in their eyes,” said Nancy about the effect of the program on caregivers who work with dementia patients.
Care Dimensions is the largest hospice facility in Massachusetts. In 2014 it served 4,458 hospice patients from 90 communities, an average of 600 hospice patients per day. The some 450 volunteers actually outnumber the organization’s 381 employees.
A new facility, the Kaplan House in Danvers, was erected in 2005. It is the site for a training period for new volunteers every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon beginning on May 13 and running through June 17. Those interested may call the Volunteer Services Department at 1-888-283-1722 for more information.
In addition to needing more volunteers, Nancy wanted to make clear how anybody with the right attitude could help in the same way she and Kitty does. When asked, neither could honestly come up with a moment of regret from their combined years of volunteering.
“We want to get the word out to people that it’s not a fearful thing to do,” said Nancy. “Sometimes a person will need a break; especially if you’re going into the nursing homes. You see a lot of people in there just sitting and waiting to die. After a while you might need a break from that. But you go back. For some reason or another, you go back.”
Most important to Nancy and Kitty is putting in the effort so that somebody on their deathbed doesn’t feel alone or scared as they pass into the void. Nancy summed up the mentality succinctly.
“So often they just want to know that somebody gives a damn. And Kitty and I give a damn.”
Since 1978, Care Dimensions has provided comprehensive and compassionate care for individuals and families dealing with life-threatening illnesses. As the non-profit leader in advanced illness care, we offer services in over 100 communities in Massachusetts.