Hospice: Volunteering at the End of Life
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
— Emily Dickinson, “Complete Poems”
Hospice volunteer Linda Harris spent many a recent hour typing up poems and, in the process, learning about life and death, love and family, honesty and what it takes to make a difference. Written over time, some in the final months of life, the poems are the legacy of a remarkable 80-something woman Linda calls “The Poetry Madame.”
Linda met the Poetry Madame on Christmas Eve, when she first visited her at home as a hospice volunteer. The following week, New Year’s Eve, Linda began what would become a tradition, helping her new acquaintance “get gussied up” and giving her a haircut — a service she provides regularly to other hospice patients as well. (“I’m the best price in town,” she says of her free service.)
Hospice care is an end-of-life-care model that focuses on enhancing quality of life when time is short. It involves an inter-disciplinary team — including doctors, nurses, social workers, bereavement counselors and nutritionists — working together addressing the medical, physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs of the patient, as well as providing bereavement support to the family. In keeping with hospice’s deeply humane and community-service roots (the word stems from the same root as “hospitality”), the team also includes volunteers like Linda — more than 460,000 other hospice volunteers across the country.
“Volunteers are an integral and valued part of the team,” says Taren Sterry. manager of volunteer services for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Hospice Care. “They provide that extra level of care and comfort that neighbors used to provide for free, without thinking about it.”
In fact, volunteers are mandated by law. Organizations that receive hospice Medicare benefits from the government must have 5 percent of their direct services come from volunteers. Volunteers provide nonprofessional services but are required to undergo intensive training, including interviews and background checks. Our organization asks volunteers to commit to at least one year of service, visiting with one patient one hour per week in the home. Volunteers who visit patients in a residential facility have a small “caseload” per week.
Volunteer services can be as varied as those of any personal relationship and can include:
• Support for patients