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Making a difference for hospice patients in the dash

By Jean Francis, M.Ed., C.T.

Hospice volunteers make a difference in the dash.

On a typical headstone, two dates are etched in stone – the date a person is born and the date they die. What matters most, though, is not these goalposts in life. Instead what matters is the dash. That’s our life. That dash represents the short time we have on this planet to make a difference. Or not.

Making a difference means many things to many people. For the people who serve as hospice volunteers, what they do during that dash can be life affirming. They give the gift of themselves. They give their time, the most precious commodity on earth.

The gift of time is essential to a hospice organization. What most people don’t realize is that hospices that receive reimbursement from Medicare are required to utilize volunteers in their operation. Five percent of all patient care hours must be delivered by volunteers who directly support patients and families. This mandate makes perfect sense when we remember that hospice began as a grassroots movement that gained momentum through the selfless efforts of volunteers. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), in 2010 nearly 458,000 hospice volunteers nationwide provided 21 million hours of service to patients and families who were coping with a life-limiting diagnosis.

Unlike the other members of the hospice team – the nurse, social worker, chaplain, therapist or home health aide, the role of the volunteer is less delineated. The volunteer is not there to achieve an outcome or to perform a specific task. After undergoing rigorous screening and training, the volunteer is assigned to a patient who has a need. This volunteer enters another person’s life at an often chaotic time and they come with one simple mission. “I’m here to help. What can I do now for you?”

Hospice volunteers are chameleons, versatile and flexible, changing colors to meet the needs of each patient situation. Here are a few ways hospice volunteers make a difference:

  1. A new perspective – The patient’s oft-repeated stories about growing up during the Depression produce yawns from family members. But to Jennifer, the volunteer hearing these stories for the first time, it is a history lesson. Volunteers encourage story telling as a way to ascribe meaning and purpose to the life that was lived.
  2. Respite – Volunteer Dennis spends several hours each week at the bedside of a patient while the spouse runs errands and visits the hairdresser. The wife gets much needed time to herself knowing her husband is safe at home.
  3. Affirming the journey – Volunteer Joan visits an elderly woman whose husband continues to slip into the valley of dementia. Joan’s mission is to bear witness to this woman’s difficult journey as she loses her spouse of 64 years.
  4. Presence – Volunteer Mary sits at the bedside of a patient who is dying and provides companionship and emotional support to the patient’s daughter. While watching for any signs of discomfort, she also encourages the daughter to talk about her relationship with her father.

Making a difference means many things to many people. Hospice volunteers offer their time and presence to patients and families on that final journey. They make a difference in the dash.

Jean Francis is a volunteer coordinator at Holy Redeemer Hospice.  

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Lynn Piccoli #

    Wonderful article jean, Thank you, the value of our volunteers can not be said enough!

    May 31, 2012

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