Be a Hospice Volunteer: Make a Difference
Jessica, a VITAS volunteer, describes her experience as a hospice volunteer.
Many people imagine themselves becoming hospice volunteers, making a difference for people at the end of their life journey. Too many never make the phone call that could change their lives because they’re not sure what will be expected of them, and they are not sure if they have what it takes.
Volunteer fills the gap between loved ones and professional caregivers. Volunteers will be there even when friends and family find it hard to do so. Volunteers don’t have the emotional attachment family does. They are trained to meet the needs of patients and families. They visit on a schedule, yet are open to change as dictated by the patient’s health and interests. They are unpaid, yet priceless.
What does it take to be a hospice volunteer?
Hospice volunteers need to know that hospice work takes its toll. You become friends with people who are going to die, and with the people who love them. You must be able to sit quietly, take a back seat to the events taking place around you, be a calming presence when that is called for. You need to be a guest, an observer, a facilitator.
As a hospice volunteer, you need to:
- Commit the time to volunteer orientation
- Be dependable
- Be patient
- Be a listener, and comfortable in silence
- Know your strengths, your limits, and when to say no
- Be non-judgmental
- Accept that needs can be physical, emotional and/or spiritual
- Respect all beliefs, all religious customs and all who lack them
How will I know what to do?
Every VITAS volunteer receives free and comprehensive training before being assigned a volunteer job. They learn hospice philosophy, caring for the terminally ill, grief & loss education, health & safety precautions and more. They talk about what kinds of volunteering they are interested in and what talents their volunteer manager sees in them.
Volunteers work with a clinical team of a doctor, nurse, aide, chaplain and social worker. Because they spend time with the patient, volunteers who provide direct patient care can often give the team valuable feedback about issues that arise during their visits.
Why do hospices have volunteers?
When hospice care became a Medicare benefit in 1982, written into the law signed by President Ronald Reagan was the requirement that community volunteers had to provide a minimum of 5 percent of total patient care hours. It is one of the things that makes hospice care unique in healthcare.
The thinking was that volunteers would provide a kind of caring and a point of view that neither the professional healthcare providers on the team nor the family, who is also part of the hospice team, would offer. Today every Medicare-certified hospice—public or private, secular or faith-based, for-profit or non-profit—trains community volunteers to provide 5 percent of patient care hours. It’s the law.