Death is not a stranger to me. Both my parents died before I was 30, and I have lost several other loved ones during the past 20 years.
In March 2016, my uncle spent his final days at the Care Dimensions Kaplan Family Hospice House. His two daughters (my cousins) had taken turns staying with him until one night, when realizing they both were drained emotionally and physically, I offered to take the overnight shift. Growing up, his house was like a second home to me. I was happy to help.
In the early hours of the next day, I sensed that my uncle was near death. I held his hand and told him it was OK to go. I could tell he wanted to go; he just needed me to hold his hand while he took one final breath. He was at peace.
Inspired to volunteer for hospice
I am a gardener, and one of the first things I noticed about the Kaplan Family Hospice House is its serene, peaceful setting. My uncle’s obituary mentioned that donations could be made in his name to Care Dimensions/Kaplan Family Hospice House. I had been looking for a way to give back, so I thought, “Why not volunteer?” I signed up for the hospice volunteer training that fall.
The volunteer training program consists of eight, three-hour sessions. Being from Gloucester, my training was at the Kaplan House (hospice volunteer training also is offered at the Care Dimensions office in Waltham). It felt good to be among a group of like-minded folks who wanted to help people living with a serious illness. My key takeaways from the training:
- I could give some joy to hospice patients who don’t have a lot of family to visit them.
- Music gets through to dying patients. It’s good to see people respond to music they loved and remember.
- I couldn’t let someone feel lonely at the end of their life, and the training helped me prepare for those encounters.
- Hospice volunteering is my own form of meditation – just being there and holding someone’s hand is an amazing feeling.
Volunteering with my first hospice patient
My first hospice volunteering match is with a former civil engineer who has dementia and lives in a long-term care facility. Prior to my first visit with him, I had read that he enjoyed Dixieland music. When I arrived at the facility, he was sitting alone in a common area with his head down. I played a Dixieland music video on my phone and put it where he would be able to see it. A couple of minutes later, he opened his eyes, looked at me, looked at the phone, and started smiling. Then he looked at me and smiled again. Just to see him have that moment of clarity was rewarding. Music is how we started connecting.
The next time I visited, I brought some blocks with me so I could tap into his knowledge as a civil engineer. I started to make a building out of the blocks and asked, “Do you think this block should go here?” He would answer “yes” or “no” and seemed to enjoy the interaction. During the third visit, I just sat with him. We didn’t communicate verbally, but I would like to think that by being there, he knew I cared enough to visit him again.
It’s easy to feel guilty about leaving after a visit because he’s all alone again, but I know that this work gives you moments when you can connect. For that time, he can focus, have a connection, and enjoy the moment, and I can give him that time he deserves.
Rewards of hospice volunteering
Before my first hospice volunteering experience, I was nervous about putting myself out there. I wondered how my patient would react and how I would handle the situation. I wondered if I could bring some comfort. After making eye contact and that connection at our first meeting, however, I was hooked.
Hospice volunteering makes me feel good about giving my time to others. It’s my reset button — it takes away stress in my life. I get a huge sense of purpose out of it and a sense of community. Whatever I can give or do – no matter how small – can make a big difference to the patient.
All the loss in my life has drawn me to becoming a hospice volunteer, which has changed me. Volunteering allows me to let go of past hurts and regrets. It has given me the opportunity to think about what death is. I used to be afraid of death, but now I see it as a release. You don’t have to be terrified of it. It’s a transition.
I wonder what the next 30 years of my life is going to be like. I want a rich life, but I also want a place like the Kaplan Family Hospice House, if and when I need it. Hospice gives people dignity they want and deserve. I am proud and happy to be part of it.
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