Death is not a stranger to me. Both my parents died before I was 30, and I have lost several loved ones during the past 20 years.
In March 2016, my uncle spent his final days at the Kaplan Family Hospice House, a program of Care Dimensions. His two daughters had taken turns staying with him until one night, when realizing they both were drained emotionally and physically, I offered to take the overnight shift. Growing up, his house was like a second home to me. I was happy to help.
In the early hours of the next day, I sensed that my uncle was near death. I held his hand and told him it was OK to go. I could tell he wanted to go; he just needed me to hold his hand while he took one final breath. He was at peace.
Inspired to volunteer for hospice
I am a gardener, and one of the first things I noticed about the Kaplan Family Hospice House is its serene, peaceful setting. I had been looking for a way to give back, so I thought, “Why not volunteer?”
In the fall of 2016 I signed up to be a hospice volunteer. It felt good to be among a group of like-minded folks who wanted to help people living with a serious illness. My key takeaways from the training:
Volunteering with my first hospice patient
My first hospice volunteering match was with a former civil engineer who has dementia and lives in a long-term care facility. Prior to my first visit with him, I had read that he enjoyed Dixieland music. When I arrived at the facility, he was sitting alone in a common area with his head down. I played a Dixieland music video on my phone and put it where he would be able to see it. A couple of minutes later, he opened his eyes, looked at me, looked at the phone, and started smiling. Then he looked at me and smiled again. Just to see him have that moment of clarity was rewarding. Music is how we started connecting.
The next time I visited, I brought some blocks with me so I could tap into his knowledge as a civil engineer. I started to make a building out of the blocks and asked, “Do you think this block should go here?” He would answer “yes” or “no” and seemed to enjoy the interaction. During the third visit, I just sat with him. We didn’t communicate verbally, but I would like to think that by being there, he knew I cared enough to visit him again.
Rewards of hospice volunteering
Before my first hospice volunteering experience, I was nervous about putting myself out there. I wondered how my patient would react and how I would handle the situation. I wondered if I could bring some comfort. After making eye contact and that connection at our first meeting, however, I was hooked.
Hospice volunteering makes me feel good about giving my time to others. It’s my reset button — it takes away stress in my life. I get a huge sense of purpose out of it and a sense of community. Whatever I can give or do — no matter how small — can make a big difference to the patient. Hospice gives people the dignity they want and deserve. I am proud and happy to be part of it.
Learn more about becoming a hospice volunteer with Care Dimensions at www.CareDimensions.org or call 978-750-9349.
Karen McBain of Gloucester is a volunteer for Care Dimensions.
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.