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Care Dimensions volunteer Nancy Littlehale relaxes with her pet therapy dog, Poppy, at the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers.
Care Dimensions volunteer Nancy Littlehale relaxes with her pet therapy dog, Poppy, at the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers.

Volunteering for Hospice has Changed my Life

Posted on April 22, 2024 by Nancy Littlehale

Death is part of everyones life. Its inevitable. I learned a long time ago that death isn’t so scary if you talk about how to deal with it in a humane, peaceful way.

My sisters and I grew up in Pepper Pike, Ohio, where we had dear friends and neighbors whose doors were always open to us. A friends mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. It was too far along for treatment, so a hospice team came to her house to make her comfortable. 

Although I was a teenager, I can still remember vividly how well the hospice team cared for our neighbor and how well they communicated with family and friends, like me. They managed to ease our fears about death while educating us about the dying process. Since then, I have come to understand that witnessing someone at end-of-life is sacred. I was lucky to be with her and understand she wasn’t in pain and was in a place of acceptance.

Fast forward about 25 years. Im a stay-at-home mom of four children in Massachusetts and one of my best friends was diagnosed with adrenal cancer at 41 years old. She was very athletic and determined to do everything possible to be part of the small percentage who survive it. I tried many times to talk to her about facing death, but she never wanted to discuss it. It was like she would have been admitting defeat if she had agreed to talk about it. In her mind, hospice was not an option.

When my friend was in a hospital intensive care unit, I thought about how hospice could have given her an opportunity for a better quality of life during her last several months. Her family – including her young children – could have had a team of experts help them through her end-of-life journey. Unfortunately, my friend did not beat the disease, and she died at 42.

Becoming a hospice volunteer

Losing my friend this way spurred me to help others who could benefit from hospice, so I signed up for volunteer training with Care Dimensions. The training started in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  After a brief pause, the training continued remotely, and I completed the program that fall. My volunteer work began in January 2021.

I started as a substitute volunteer at the Kaplan Family Hospice House front desk and then took a regular opening shift on Wednesday mornings (I’ve been on that shift ever since then). Once Care Dimensions was able to resume in-person volunteer visits, I met with a patient at his home, often outside and masked.

About a year ago, my black Labrador retriever, Poppy, completed professional training and certification so she and I could visit Care Dimensions hospice patients who requested pet therapy. Our first visit was with a male patient in a nursing home. He was in and out of consciousness and trembling. I just sat next to him with Poppy and talked to him because I knew from my training that he could hear me. I told him all about Poppy, and he became more attentive. We stayed for about a half hour. When I spoke with the volunteer coordinator a few days later to arrange another visit, I learned that the patient had died several hours after Poppy and I left. The staff hadn’t seen the patient so alert as he was right after our visit, and they said that he had owned dogs all his life. It was good to know that our visit brought him some comfort just before he passed. And that’s the magic of pet therapy.  

Poppy also visits patients with me at the Kaplan House on Wednesday mornings and we occasionally see patients in their homes.

On Thursday mornings, I make check-in calls to ensure that patients and caregivers have the supplies and medications they need for the weekend. If theres an urgent need for medical care, I refer to my volunteer manager, who contacts Care Dimensions Triage. I love that there are various touch points we offer to patients and family members, which makes sure they feel well taken care of.

Lessons, rewards of hospice volunteering

I’ve learned that hospice offers so much. Every patient has an interdisciplinary team assigned to them – they can get help from a nurse case manager, a hospice aide, a social worker, a chaplain, music and massage therapists, and a volunteer. It’s a whole blanket of love for the patient and the family.

As a hospice volunteer, I learn something new every day when interacting with different patients and families. People want to be heard and taken care of – it validates how theyre feeling. Care Dimensions figures out their needs and tries to fulfill them.

It amazes me that every day – either at the Kaplan House or out in the world – I have conversations with people who still don't understand what hospice is” or “does.” We need to have more clarity and conversations around the whole topic. 

I find hospice volunteering fascinating and fulfilling. I notice that other hospice volunteers have this same yearning for fulfillment. Were all extremely compassionate, patient, and empathetic. I believe everyone should be given the opportunity to experience the benefits of hospice: patients, caregivers, AND volunteers.

Being a hospice volunteer has changed my life because it keeps me grounded. Life is so much more enjoyable because I have a better appreciation for everything. I see people during the hardest time of their lives, which puts everything into perspective for me. With acceptance and understanding comes peace. Volunteering at Care Dimensions has given me a constant appreciation for every single person who works in a hospice and an appreciation for life while we live it.  

We should all enjoy each day -- they are not guaranteed!

Learn about becoming a hospice volunteer with Care Dimensions.

To be notified when articles are published on the Care Dimensions blog, please email [email protected]

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