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Volunteer Alan Wichlei helps any way he can at the Care Dimensions Hospice House, including refilling the birdfeeders.
Volunteer Alan Wichlei helps any way he can at the Care Dimensions Hospice House, including refilling the birdfeeders.

Continuing Meaningful Work as a Hospice Volunteer

Posted on February 8, 2022 by Alan Wichlei

I’ve been drawn to nonprofit work all my adult life. From working with residents in a correctional pre-release halfway house, to leading a community-based mental health services organization, to my 30+ years as a partner in an executive search firm serving nonprofit organizations, I’ve always felt that my work should improve people’s lives.

When I was nearing retirement a few years ago, I began to think about the opportunity it presented for meaningful volunteer work. I was drawn to hospice because each of my parents received hospice services in Wisconsin and died peacefully and comfortably. 

In June 2018, I took Care Dimensions’ comprehensive hospice volunteer training. I was struck by the caring spirit of the volunteer coordinators and my fellow trainees, and I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and comprehensiveness of the training.

Interacting with patients

My first volunteer assignment was an elderly female patient at a long-term care facility. Senior Volunteer Coordinator Jane Corrigan accompanied me to observe my interaction with the patient, as she does with all first-time volunteers in Greater Boston. That initial visit is simply about getting acquainted, laying the groundwork for regular visits. How is the patient feeling? What are their days like? What do they want to talk about or do during our time together? What shared interests or experiences can we find? Over time, we developed a closer relationship, and I became part of her support network, which is our goal.

I wanted to have a variety of patient experiences, so I offered my expertise as a Reiki Master. Some of my assignments are just for Reiki, some are regular visits. One combined the two. In talking about common interests with a home care patient, I discovered that he was interested in Reiki. So, we added this to our already varied repertoire of sharing music (including his own compositions), exotic Chinese tea, fiddling with Tibetan gongs, exploring biofeedback for relaxation, and much more.  My visits allowed his wife to get out of the house for a couple of hours and I was honored when she asked me to speak at his memorial service.

I took additional Care Dimensions training to sit vigil with patients who are actively dying. it’s a privilege to be a quiet, compassionate presence with someone on the final steps of their life’s journey. I have practiced meditation for 50 years and I’m comfortable just sitting in aware/awake silence. I’ve had some rewarding experiences sitting vigil with patients after having made a connection when they were alert and responsive. That’s particularly special. You’re participating in one of the two biggest moments in the life of someone you have gotten to know, if only briefly. 

Having additional free time upon my retirement in 2019, I began volunteering at the Care Dimensions Hospice House. Volunteers support the staff there in varied ways including greeting visitors, visiting patients, changing/freshening flower bouquets, watering plants, refilling birdfeeders, and so forth.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, patient visits in homes and facilities were temporarily halted, and my Care Dimensions volunteering shifted exclusively to the hospice house. Now I volunteer there twice a week, plus I do Reiki on Mondays for patients who request it.

The rewards of hospice volunteering

I’ve discovered two big benefits of volunteering with Care Dimensions:

  1. I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile that is meaningful to me and others. Helping wherever I’m needed – whether it’s spending time with a patient or tending to everyday tasks at the hospice house – is satisfying. It’s good to know that a patient felt better after a volunteer visit or enjoyed the birds at the feeders we refilled outside their windows, or that we made the jobs of the professional staff a little easier.
  1. I meet people I would not otherwise get to know. Every patient was somebody else at a different time – not “a patient” but a professional, a husband, a wife, a parent, a community member – with interests and accomplishments, joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. It’s fulfilling to find connections and commonality. And it is a useful reminder that, while I am the hospice volunteer now, someday I will be the patient, just like them.
Hospice volunteering lessons

Here are four lessons I’ve learned as a hospice volunteer:

  1. Less is often more. You don’t need to say a lot. Create an open, accepting space for patients and they can make use of it as they wish. They may reflect on the past or talk about their current situation. You just need to be there. It takes energy to talk and socialize. A patient may not have that energy but might appreciate companionship.
  1. It’s important to be flexible. For example, I was assigned to offer Reiki to a patient in a facility. When I introduced myself, the patient – a delightfully sharp elderly woman – turned out to have very little interest in Reiki. I discovered she wanted to find someone with whom she could play Rummikub. She had been a competitive bridge player and Rummikub offered a similar mental challenge. So, I studied up and Rummikub became the heart of our weekly visits.
  1. There are many ways to help. Of course, volunteers visit patients at home or in facilities, and we support the professional staff and operations at Care Dimensions’ two hospice houses. Other volunteer opportunities include working in the administration offices, making bereavement calls, offering pet therapy, and more. Whichever you choose, you’ll be doing meaningful work that yields rewards beyond what you could imagine.
  1. Volunteering with hospice patients helps keep life in perspective. Dying is hard work. It’s an honor to be a part of someone’s final days and a reminder not to get caught up in the small stuff of living. Life is a gift, and our lives are finite.


Learn more about volunteering with Care Dimensions.


About the author
Alan Wichlei has been a Care Dimensions volunteer since 2018. He also serves as Chairperson of FHR (formerly Fellowship Health Resources), a multi-state agency providing behavioral health services to improve the quality of life for individuals living with mental illness and addictions. He is a retired partner of the executive search firm Isaacson, Miller. He resides in Lexington, MA.

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