What It's Like to Be a Hospice Volunteer
Not one to mope and feel sorry for herself, and not working at the time, Jessica went to VolunteerMatch.org to find something to immerse herself in, something that would take her away from her own sorrow. She is fluent in English and Spanish and living in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Surely someone needed her help.
Embracing the Opportunity
She clicked on an ad for VITAS , but when she got a call from Cathy Agosti, VITAS volunteer services manager for Miami-Dade County, Jessica had to Google hospice. She wasn’t sure what it was. “But I’ve always been around the elderly and sick,” she reasoned. “I’m good at feeling vibes, and patients feel that in me.” So she embraced the opportunity.
She spent a day in orientation, one of about ten new volunteers who ranged in age from high school students to seniors. They learned what their role as volunteers would be, what the legal and medical ramifications are for volunteers, and what it’s like to visit a hospice patient or his or her family.
Although volunteers typically work anywhere from once a month to once a week, Jessica signed up to visit four patients three times a week, all living on the same floor of a facility near her home. Their VITAS case manager accompanied Jessica on her first visit, to introduce her and help establish relationships.
Taking Her Time with Patients
One patient, just a decade older than Jessica, was dying of cancer, angry and acting out. The case manager was kind, gentle and unruffled. “I took my cue from the case manager,” Jessica says. “Instead of feeling inadequate, I welcomed the challenge of this patient. When I got a call that he had died that night, I was sorry not to have had much time with him.”
So she concentrated on her remaining three patients, all elderly. Jessica volunteered three times a week for almost four months, until she and her husband moved to the next county. She saw each patient for about an hour each time she volunteered.
Jessica brought little gifts when she arrived near Christmas and Valentine’s Day. But her mere presence put a smile on her patients’ faces. They didn’t remember her name, but each was delighted to see her.
Sophie, Margaret and Wilson
Sophie, in a wheelchair, was originally from Cuba. Her husband visited every day at lunchtime, so Jessica got to know him as well. Margaret, who was from Panama, had children in the area but yearned for more visitors. She loved for Jessica just to sit and listen to her talk.
But it was Wilson who taught Jessica about being of service. Wilson was bedridden. He had Alzheimer’s and PTSD. He was on morphine for pain, and he slept. Jessica would rouse him as best she could when she arrived.
She’d heard that music can reach Alzheimer’s patients, so she asked him what his favorite music was, and Wilson mumbled “country music.” So she brought in some Clint Black. Walter was from Michigan, so she Googled images of Michigan and they looked at them together.
But still Wilson remained mostly unresponsive. Jessica went to her volunteer manager to ask what she could do. Cathy assured her that just sitting together, even if neither said a word, can be important to a patient like Wilson. Jessica was unconvinced.
But by the time Cathy called to say there was another patient Jessica could see who was more responsive, Jessica had come to terms with Wilson. And herself.
“I came into the role feeling entitled,” she says now. “I wanted Wilson to be a certain way, and I felt bad when he wasn’t. But I needed to appreciate Wilson for who he was. I was there to meet Wilson’s needs, not my own.”
In the end, Jessica met her own needs as well. “I definitely found the healing I was looking for, and then some,” she says. “And I’ll go back. I miss Miami-Dade, but I’ve met the volunteer manager at the VITAS program in Broward County, and I will sign up to volunteer there.