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Working with the dying is life affirming for hospice volunteers
“When was the last time you talked with anyone about dying?” Nancy Heather asked her audience at a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Osoyoos.
Heather, who is director of community relations with the Desert Valley Hospice Society, was there to talk about her volunteer organization, which provides end-of-life support to those who are terminally ill and their families.
But she also wanted to underline that some conversations about death need to occur among the rest of us – even if most people would rather not talk about it.
“Most would rather talk about living than dying,” she said.
Nonetheless, all of us die sooner or later, and our families need to know our wishes about end-of-life care, organ donation and funeral arrangements.
Heather, whose father was a funeral director, lived above the family funeral home in Hagersville, Ontario from birth until she was 16.
That’s when her father finally fulfilled a promise to her mother to build a new house separate from the family business.
Conversations about death were common in her household, where it was seen as a natural part of life.
“It wasn’t that we sat around morbidly talking about death all the time,” she said. “But because Dad was comfortable about it, we were comfortable talking about death.”
When her father was dying at age 90, he had written down details of funeral arrangements, but there was a lot about his life and his final days that were never discussed.
“We didn’t want to talk about the end,” said Heather. “He didn’t really talk about how he wanted his last days to be, so it was hard for me to know when he lost his ability to speak what would have comforted him.”
Providing comfort to the terminally ill and easing the burden on families, are much of what the Desert Valley Hospice Society does.
About 25 of its 35 volunteers actively work with patients and their families in Oliver and Osoyoos, said Lois Brummett, who is in charge of training those volunteers.
One of the criteria for volunteers, she said, is that they must be comfortable with their own mortality.
“They journey beside people and they are there to support them as listeners,” she said. “It’s a gift from the heart.”
Many people wrongly assume that a hospice is a temporary care facility for those nearing the end of their lives.
While such facilities do exist in some places, most hospice societies are like Desert Valley – they don’t provide beds, but rather provide support to the dying and their families.
This care may take place at the South Okanagan General Hospital in Oliver, at Mariposa Gardens in Osoyoos, other nursing homes or in the client’s own home.
Hospice volunteers are told they should never be asked to do anything that a professional person would do, such as hands-on nursing care.
“Effective communication is the biggest thing, which boils down to effective listening,” said Brummett. “Often it’s being present with the person and conversation isn’t always necessary, so they have to be comfortable with silence.”
Volunteers are screened through the application process, are interviewed and they have to undergo a criminal records background check, she said.
For volunteer Liliana DeNarda of Osoyoos, it was her own first-hand experience with an extended illness that convinced her to give back as a volunteer after she recovered.
Her own illness, she said, made it easier to empathize with what hospice client’s experience.
“You don’t know exactly what they’re going through, but definitely an experience with being ill and having limitations and frustrations gives you an ability to relate on a more intimate level,” said DeNarda.
Heather, Brummett and DeNarda all encourage those who are terminally ill and their families to contact the hospice society at an earlier stage and not to wait until the final days.
“It would be more fulfilling as a volunteer and I feel that the clients could be better served if contact could be initiated earlier with a client,” said DeNarda, who has volunteered for 18 months. “It would give some sense of continuity and there would be a little bit of getting to know the person.”
“We encourage people to become connected with the society early so they’ve got support through their whole disease trajectory, so there’s a bond established between the patient and the volunteer,” she said.
DeNarda can’t recall exactly how many clients she’s volunteered with, but guesses it has been roughly 20. Some of those have only been for a few days while she has worked with a few for several weeks.
While much of the time is spent with patients, the hospice volunteers also provide much-needed relief for families.
“Especially at the hospital, I’ll introduce myself to families just to let them know that if they wanted to go for dinner, I can assure them there will be somebody sitting with their mother or father,” said DeNarda. “Sometimes they don’t take advantage of it, but they are reassured to have that option.”
It can be a difficult time for families, and family members are often relieved to have an impartial hospice volunteer to talk to.
For volunteers, this difficult work is fulfilling.
“You get to learn about yourself, you get to show your care and compassion to others and it’s an opportunity to be sincere and intimate, even with strangers,” said DeNarda. “Even though you don’t know them, it seems that barriers are removed at that point.”
Often volunteers are present when the client dies.
Brummett said some volunteers feel they should leave, but she advises them to stay unless they are asked to go.
“My personal experience, from volunteering and certainly from nursing, is that when the person has actually died, when their spirit’s gone and the family is there, the family finds it comforting to have someone they can reach out to and share that with,” said Brummett. “It gives the volunteer the opportunity to say ‘there’s no rush to do anything. You stay here at the bedside as long as you wish and when you say you’re ready, we’ll make the phone calls for you.’”
Bereavement support afterwards is also an important part of what volunteers do, even if it’s calling the funeral home or making other calls.
The intensely emotional situations can be difficult on volunteers, and Brummett says either she or Marlene Parrott, the volunteer co-ordinator, regularly debrief volunteers so that they have a chance to speak about their experiences without violating confidentiality.
For DeNarda, however, the acceptance of death helps her live a more fulfilling life.
“I’m a firm believer that the more we face our mortality, the more prepared we are, and the more we can actually live,” she said. “The more you actually accept the reality that death can come at any time, the more you’re able to live your life fully.”
For more information on Desert Valley Hospice Society, phone 250-689-3847 or visit www.desertvalleyhospice.org.