Hospice Volunteers Needed in Washington County

The volunteers of Down East Hospice gather together periodically for luncheons as part of the extensive support network the organization offers. Down East Hospice Volunteers provides compassionate care for residents in Washington County. Services could include listening, companionship, coordinating outside resources, respite for caregivers and doing errands. (Photo courtesy of Diane McAlpine).

By Lura Jackson

 

When thinking about the terms “community-building” and “life-affirming”, the situation of attending a dying person’s side may not immediately come to mind. As contradictory as it could seem, being in the role of a hospice volunteer is not simply about easing the passage of one individual into death – it is also about creating long-lasting, meaningful bonds with a network of people enriched by their experience with human compassion.

For Paul Strickland, a volunteer with Down East Hospice for the past two and a half years, it was his father’s death in 1996 that clued him in to the role that hospice volunteers play. “They were almost like angels,” he said of the volunteers that assisted his father. “I was so appreciative of what they did for my dad.” Strickland was particularly touched by how his father’s comfort was the number one priority of the volunteers. Seeing the process in action, Strickland knew it was something he wanted to be a part of. “I said to myself, ‘If I ever get the opportunity to give back, I will.’”

After moving to the area permanently in 2012, Strickland soon undertook the training process to become a hospice volunteer. He was motivated both by his experience with his father but also by the recognition that there are not many male hospice volunteers. “At times for men, at transition points in their lives, it’s important for them to talk to another man,” Strickland said. “Given the way society has gone, many men don’t have the kind of close friends that they used to. When people get in this situation, it’s difficult.”

Shifting demographics have caused a heightened need for hospice volunteers. In the past half century, the country has become increasingly spread out in terms of how far families are living from one another and how a lack of resources can make it difficult to provide care for a dying family member. “It’s amazing to me, the number of people that don’t have anyone,” Strickland said. “There are a lot of family members that want to be at their loved one’s bedside, but they work, or they don’t have the money to travel.” Hospice volunteers are able to fill that gap. “Even if it’s spending one to two hours with someone, it says to them that you care.”

In the time he has been with Down East Hospice, Strickland has attended five clients, all of them male. His experience with his most recent client emphasized the point that a hospice volunteer’s ability and willingness to listen can be their most humanizing asset. “He was a trucker, and he loved to talk about trucks and cars,” Strickland said. “I told the caregiver that I wasn’t knowledgeable about trucks and cars, but I am a good listener.” The client opened up about his life and the pair formed a rapid connection. “We had these great conversations where he was talking about trucks from the past.”

Being a hospice volunteer has been a profound experience for Strickland that he continues to appreciate. “I personally believe it’s a real gift to be with someone at that stage in their life. It’s certainly a reminder to me of my mortality,” Strickland said. “If you stop and think about it, we’re all terminal. We’re all mortal and we’re going to be in this position at some point. If it was needed, it is certainly nice to be able to call upon hospice volunteers.”

Beyond the assistance provided to the client themselves, Strickland emphasizes that the most important contribution of a hospice volunteer is providing relief for the caregivers. Hospice volunteers that come to attend a client give caregivers the precious opportunity to take time for themselves to handle everyday tasks that fall behind when a loved one is dying. Having someone step in to temporarily take over the role of caregiving is immeasurably valuable.  “It’s a critical time for families,” Strickland said. “You’re even more attuned and sensitive to the people do care – the people that are there because they care about your family member as a sacred human being.”

For Peter and Judy Classen of Harrington, having Down East Hospice in their lives while Peter’s father, Guenther, was passing away was a welcome experience. “When you get to the hospice stage, it is a 24-hour job,” Peter said, referring to how much time is required of caregivers. “I never realized how much work was involved.” The Classens were referred to Down East Hospice, and Barbara Barnett soon contacted them to discuss what kind of hospice volunteer would be most appropriate for their situation. Volunteer Andy Cadot agreed to meet with the client.

“He was very nice,” Peter said. “He was here for three hours sometimes. The last time he came, we had some firewood that we needed to stack, and it gave us time to do that.” Guenther appreciated Cadot’s company, too. “Dad really enjoyed having somebody different to talk to.”

The Classens are particularly grateful for being able to call hospice at any time of day or night anytime they encountered a difficulty. “It’s great to have a support team,” said Judy. “Hospice makes quite a difference when it comes time,” Peter concurred. “It made an awful big difference for us.”

Becoming a Hospice 

Volunteer

A training for those who are interested in exploring the possibility of becoming a hospice volunteer is planned for October in Calais, and Down East Hospice Director Barbara Barnett is encouraging anyone from around the county to attend. With clients located all over the county, there is a continual need for volunteers willing to embrace the situation of community members and their families as they navigate their personal journeys.

No special background is required of volunteers. “Our volunteers do a lot of listening,” Barnett said, explaining that the provision of companionship is key. “If clients are well enough, some volunteers will take them out. They will take them shopping, or take them to the hairdresser, or take them down to sit to look at the water.” Looking at photo albums, making favorite recipes, or sharing in a favorite television show are all possibilities. “Even just having someone just sitting there quietly and holding someone’s hand does make a big difference.”

There is no fee for participating in the 20-hour training, and, upon completion, volunteers receive national certification as hospice volunteers. There is no age requirement, but volunteers will need to undergo a background check and have the ability to drive themselves. The training covers topics such as ethics at the end of life, family dynamics, dealing with stress, and spirituality. “This training will help support volunteers in their own lives,” Barnett said. “They will become better listeners, they will become more patient and less judgmental, and their natural compassion will grow.”

After completing the informal training, volunteers have complete input on how and when they are able to visit clients. “A volunteer gets to tell me how much time they want to give and what days are convenient for them,” Barnett said. If a volunteer agrees to work with a client that is a long distance away, Barnett will provide assistance for fuel costs.

Emphasizing that a volunteer needs nothing more in terms of psychological preparation than the training addresses and the support of the extensive hospice network, Barnett said that in every situation with a client, a volunteer is improving the lives around them. “Hospice volunteers should realize that it’s not about them. They may sometimes think they’ve not made a difference, but they have.” 

The training will take place on October 12, 16, 20, and 23, running from approximately 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. each day except for the last, which will start at 11:00 a.m. Attendance at each session is required. For more information, contact Barbara at 454-7521, ext. 126, or at downeasthospice@yahoo.com. To reach Barbara directly at home, call 726-5087.

Celebrating Father's Day earlier this year with broad smiles are Peter (left) and Guenther Classen of Harrington. The Classens, who enrolled in Down East Hospice, are deeply appreciative of their experience working with volunteer Andy Cadot. (Photo courtesy of Peter Classen)