Hospice Volunteer: My Experience
When I was younger, my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She lived with it for eight years before ultimately dying of the cancer at the age of 72. During those years, I watched my mom take her to the doctor and hospital over and over again. I saw her recuperate from surgery more than once. I was sad that I could not go in and visit her because in those days, you couldn't visit under a certain age. I saw how tired my mom was going to Massachusetts from our home state of Connecticut to help care for her. I read a lot about death and dying, and found the works of Dr.
I read a lot about death and dying, and found the works of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross. She was one of the first people to pay attention to the needs of the terminally ill, and their desire to die in their homes with family nearby rather than in a hospital. She was instrumental in starting the Hospice movement. Hospice enables terminally ill patients, with under 6 months to live, to stay in their homes while teams of doctors, nurses, health caregivers, and volunteers come to them in their homes to offer medical, spiritual and emotional care.There are some actual inpatient Hospices, the first being started by Dr. Cicely Saunders in 1967 in London, England, called, "St. Christopher's."
The very first inpatient Hospice in the United States was founded in 1974 in Branford, Connecticut. The majority of Hospice programs allow patients to live in their homes, with staff coming to them. Not only do they provide this for the patients, but are also available to the family members who need a break from the daily care that comes with caring for a terminally ill family member. There are a number of ways to help as a Hospice volunteer.
4 Ways to Volunteer For Hospice:
1) Home Visitor: going directly into the home of the terminally ill person to care for them directly through a myriad of activities such as reading to them, staying with them while their family members work or go to dinner, or to a movie, etc. just to get an emotional break. I might be cooking easy meals, or sitting with small children. Or just holding someone's hand and watching TV with them like I had done with my grandmother.
2) Bereavement Counselor: The Bereavement counselor was assigned to a family after the family member had died. I was responsible for phone contact or in-person visit at least once a month for the following year. Mail was encouraged in the form of cards. It was to let the people know that someone still cared.
3) Fund Raiser: This would include working on ways to raise money in the community for the program.
4) Office Help: This is what it seemed...answering phones, typing reports and labels for envelopes, etc.
In my local area of Connecticut, there are a number of Hospice programs. When I was ready to volunteer for the Hospice program, I was working full time and decided to just join my local Hospice program that was run out of a local agency, and gave patient care in homes through a staff of doctors, nurses, a minister, and volunteers. I was excited about this because it had been a dream of mine since my grandmother was sick. I made a phone call and met with the volunteer coordinator in the Fall of 1989. I filled out an application and we spoke for awhile. She interviewed me on what my experiences had been with the dying. I told her about my grandmother and my interest in Hospice. I had taken a course on death and dying in college. She then asked what type of volunteering I had hoped to do. I told her I was interested in volunteering directly with patients, and perhaps doing some fund raising. I had said the magic words: fund raising. This woman gave her heart and soul to the Hospice program as the volunteer coordinator. It was her heart and soul, and you could just tell by talking to her. She became very excited when I mentioned fund raising. She told me she had hoped they could someday find someone to be the chairman of a Hospice Walkathon. I can still remember myself saying those 4 little words, "I can do that" that I was to live to regret! What followed was a whirlwind of excitement within the agency. Everyone was excited that there was going to be a walkathon to raise funds.
Planning the Hospice Walkathon
Before I knew it, I had a very daunting job laid in my lap. I knew absolutely nothing about organizing a walkathon, but I was to learn very quickly. Fortunately, I had an acquaintance at the time who had just finished organizing a walkathon for another non-profit agency. I called her and she was very willing to help me. I learned quickly that this was a huge undertaking involving recruiting a volunteer committee, contact with the local police department, planning a route, getting a permit, asking local businesses for donations for prizes, etc. I did all this while working full-time in a demanding job as a social worker with neglected and abused kids. I would come home every night, emotionally drained form my job, and listened to 10 - 15 messages on my answering machine that required return calls. At that time, there were no cell phones so answering machines had to do the trick.
I must say that my committee was top notch and without them, the walkathon would not have happened. We only had about 5 months to plan this as they wanted to have it in April. The first step was to set a monetary goal to reach. I chose $10,000 as the goal as that sounded reasonable for the first time out. Then I learned that we had to have a kick-off party, and I would have to speak. This was one of the hardest things for me to do because I didn't like to speak in front of people. But I was very committed to this cause, so I got up in front of 50 people and gave a speech that is a blur to me now, but I do remember my knees shaking. The kick-off was a great idea because it got everyone psyched to make this event a success. I had some great committee members who went out combing the community for any types of donations, from prizes for the walkers, to napkins, to hot dogs, soda, chips, to fruit and water to be given out at check points etc. We were even able to get 100 t-shirts donated with a saying on it for the first 100 walkers to register.
The Day of the Walkathon
The day of the walkathon dawned and I had hardly slept the night before. I was so excited, but also happy to have the event be a success and get back to my everyday life, which although busy was much calmer than this. I was disappointed that as the chairman of the walk, I was not able to actually participate in the walk. I was too busy driving around to all the different check stops and checking on the walkers making sure everyone was doing alright. At the end of the day, we had over 200 walkers, everyone was excited and happy, and not only did we raise $10,000, but went $12,000 over, and the first annual Hospice Walk in Southeastern Connecticut raised $22,000! I would like to take the credit for that, but the credit actually goes to the volunteers, and family members of Hospice patients who believe so strongly in the work of Hospice, and how much Hospice helped their dying family members that they went way above and beyond the call of duty to make this walkathon a success.
Although this walkathon was a lot of work to organize and put on, when all was said and done, it was much more successful than I could ever have imagined. I was tired at the end but was grateful I had had the opportunity to be part of raising money for such a wonderful program.
After the walkathon excitement died down, I was asked to be the organizer for the following year as well. I felt as though I had bit off more than I could chew. I gave it a lot of thought, but declined the offer because I wanted to concentrate on starting a family and didn't want to be under that much stress if pregnant. ( It's a good thing I decided that because by the date of the second annual Hopsice Walkathon, I was 71/2 months pregnant with my son...but I did walk in it.)
My Second Hospice Volunteer Experience: Bereavement Volunteer
Instead of working on fund raising, I decided to try the bereavement end of the volunteer experience. I didn't think I could emotionally handle being around the dying patients while being pregnant, because I was so emotional already while pregnant. So, I volunteered with 2 women who's husbands had recently died. It was a sad experience but one that I am very glad I had. Most of the visits I had with them were spent listening to stories about their husbands and how much they missed them. One thing I learned from that experience is that approximately 1 month after a family member dies, almost all support falls away. People assume that the spouse that is left behind will be fine now because it's been a month, and they should be able to be okay at that point. What happens throughout the first year after the death is that every month there will be new anniversaries to mourn. There may have been a family reunion in the summer, a vacation that the couple went on in September, a fall event they went on in October, Thanksgiving, the whole Christmas season, etc. And every time the spouse remembers what they were doing with their husband or wife 1 year ago on that day, or during that week, there is a fresh wash of pain that they have to deal with. It's hard when the support has dropped off. I was happy to be there to help these 2 lovely women with those memories. And although this was over twenty years ago, I have always remembered what I learned in my Hospice bereavement training and use it when people I know have had loved ones who have died. People seem to appreciate being asked about how they are doing after that first month. And often I find they want to talk about that loved one to keep his/her memory alive!
Since I have had children ( I had twin girls 3 years after my son) I have not done any volunteer work with Hospice. But my children are almost grown, and it is a personal goal to go back once they are independent. The Hospice program is a wonderful program for the terminally ill and their families and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a meaningful volunteer experience.
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