The joys of learning to be a hospice volunteer

Hospice teams accompanied my mother, an aunt and uncle, and both my husband’s parents during their last months, keeping them pain-free and comfortable, which helped them focus on relationships with family and die in dignity and peace. Although these family members lived in Virginia, Ohio and California, and hospice is a locally run organization, in every case the hospice philosophy of working with both the patients and their loved ones was as evident as was the quiet dedication and care of its professionals and volunteers.

Our local hospice, which is part of the Salisbury Visiting Nurses Association, offers a range of important supports, including volunteers, to assist families so that the terminally ill can remain at home during their last months. Since not all patients can be cared for either in their own homes or in a nursing home, Regional Hospice and Palliative Care in Danbury has a newly-built twelve-suite facility. The Danbury organization also coordinates hospice care for Connecticut’s pediatric patients. When I heard that Regional Hospice was offering three full days of training for volunteers, I filled out the rather extensive application form and went for an interview.

Since hospice is so integral to my last memories of dear relatives, it is hard to believe the first hospice program in the U.S. began in New Haven in only 1974.  Twenty years later, 1,800 hospice programs were offering end-of-life care in all 50 states. Although hospices offer services to patients certified by a doctor as likely to have six months or less of life, most patients wait much longer before relinquishing medical treatment. Nevertheless, patients with cancer, neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and ALS, and dementia (often called “the long goodbye”) are most likely to use hospice care.  

Sitting around the table at Regional Hospice and Palliative Care were over a dozen trainees from all walks of life, including a former fireman, a children’s book writer and publisher and a Reiki practitioner. A nurse, social worker, and chaplain, all working in the facility, gave us a window into hospice by describing what they’d done that day. Through them, we learned the depth of respect in acts both large and small that hospice professionals and volunteers show for the terminally ill. My favorite example is that, since hospice patients need physical contact, hospice team members can bring comfort by holding their hands. But we were told to slide our hand under the patients’ so that theirs, in resting on top, could easily get free if they wanted. 

Several current volunteers, who work in the facility, in nearby nursing homes, and with patients in their own homes, described the satisfaction of keeping a patient company while a family member takes a break, of doing errands for families, or, simply, of offering an attentive ear to patients and their care-givers. A woman with a dog, whom she had brought along with her, spoke of the special training her dog had received and of the healing she brings when her dog sits on the laps and beds of patients.  

Volunteers are not allowed to lift or toilet patients, give them medication, or, without additional training, feed them. Since it is important that patients and their families feel the security of knowing they can count on volunteers for whatever they have promised, we were reassured that we only help by knowing our personal limitations and should never promise more than we can comfortably deliver. 

For hospice, “spiritual care” may include faith-based singing, praying, or conversations centered on a specific faith. But it also means more than that. Hospice team members serve the patient and family, whatever their beliefs, and accompany them as they confront their losses and the unknown. Some hospice patients want to write a short memoir or autobiography as a way of finding closure for their lives. Since I’m a writer, I was asked whether I would be willing to help with this task. 

It may seem counter-intuitive that training to work with the dying was never grim, always riveting and often inspiring. I was far from the only one to be uplifted by both the hospice facility and the stories told by professionals and volunteers, and so eager to begin.   


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.