Several years ago, as my beloved Aunt Sophie was nearing the end of her life, I met someone who taught me some important lessons.
That person was a hospice volunteer who visited Aunt Sophie in her nursing home. I was grateful for her caring interactions with my aunt and for her kindness and compassion in helping me understand how I could spend meaningful time with Aunt Sophie when she no longer appeared conscious and could not express herself verbally.
I learned that the sound of my voice and my touch were powerful and loving ways I could still communicate with her. This invaluable support greatly helped me be with my aunt in her final days, and a few years later, with my father during his hospice care at end of life.
In 2018, I was drawn to a newspaper ad for hospice volunteer training at Care Dimensions as part of their interdisciplinary care team. I saw this as an opportunity to pay forward the profound caring and support from hospice that my family received.
The volunteer training was extensive and provided not only information about hospice philosophy and guidelines, but also experiential exercises that highlighted active listening and understanding from a patient’s perspective. We also met with members of the interdisciplinary care team and learned about each of their roles (nurse, aide, social worker, chaplain), plus how hospice volunteers provide companionship and a supportive presence. Combining this training with ongoing support from our volunteer coordinators helps me feel well prepared to interact with hospice patients and family members.
As a hospice volunteer, I enjoy developing a warm connection with each person by following their lead. Looking at family photos or listening to favorite songs often triggers fond memories, and I carefully listen to their stories about life experiences, hobbies, work they find meaningful, and places they’ve traveled, which are ways of sharing their unique gifts. They are each defined by their essence, not their illness.
Sometimes the person I visit suggests activities to do together, such as playing word games, reading aloud, coloring, or singing along to a favorite song. There can be laughter and tears or anything in between. It’s all welcome.
At other times, being a quiet presence by gently holding hands or sitting together, in warm, unspoken connection, is what a person wants and needs. On one visit, a person may want to engage actively, and on another to sit quietly. I think it’s most important to follow each person’s wishes, and to not underestimate the power of simply being present.
Spending time with people nearing end of life feels very sacred to me. I have been blessed to witness how the hospice process helps make this a time of comfort, reconciliation, and peace.
I am grateful to be part of a team whose mission is to bring comfort and care on each patient’s terms, to respect their wishes, and support their loved ones. It is truly a privilege to volunteer at Care Dimensions.
About the Author:
Susan Phillips of Acton, MA, has been a Care Dimensions volunteer since 2018. She enjoys life’s adventures with her husband, Ray, and their two rescue dogs. They also relish time with their two sons and nine-year-old granddaughter. Susan has worked as a teacher and integrative health coach. She currently teaches Laughter Yoga to help participants cultivate joy and wellbeing.
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Since 1978, Care Dimensions, formerly Hospice of the North Shore, 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.