Abby Slutsky volunteered for Life Choice Hospice for 7 years. During her volunteer work, she performed varied tasks.
An Eye-Opening Experience
Although I stopped volunteering when I started my business, I volunteered at hospice for seven years. (For those of you not familiar with hospice, it is not a place; it is comfort care for those that have little time left to live.)
One can receive hospice care in a private residence, a nursing home. or anywhere else. Meeting volunteers and patients and learning about how to make a difference in patients' lives was truly an eye-opening experience.
Volunteering Before Visiting Hospice Patients
At first, I was uncomfortable visiting patients and did not know if I would ever visit them. Initially, I made birthday cakes for patients and dropped them off at the central hospice office for other volunteers to take. However, I quickly learned that many of the patients were too ill to eat the cake, and it wound up being a gift for the nurses.
Later, I convinced friends throwing weddings and bar mitzvahs to donate some of their centerpieces to hospice. I would take them apart and put them in inexpensive vases. I took them to the central office, and other volunteers brightened their patients’ day with a floral arrangement. This was a bit more rewarding because most patients did appreciate the flowers.
When other volunteers told me how well received the flowers were, I decided to run a holiday drive. I, along with other volunteers, collected toiletries, robes, socks, and other items. Everything was wrapped in packages, and we made sure that every hospice patient received a holiday gift. For some patients, those simple baskets were their only holiday gifts.
The First Hospice Patient Visit
During my sixth and seventh years of volunteering at Life Choice Hospice, I was finally ready to visit patients but still a little nervous about it. I do not have a health background, and this type of volunteering was a little out of my comfort zone. However, other volunteers were moved by the experience, and I wanted to try it.
Even though patients receiving hospice care who lived in a private residence were usually in better shape than those who lived in nursing homes or facilities, I wanted to visit someone who lived in a nursing home. One of the volunteers had been with a patient when they passed, so I preferred to visit a place that had onsite medical care in case it was needed.
After getting the necessary medical immunizations, I was assigned to see Mrs. T. I did not know much about her except that she was expected to pass shortly.
I arrived at the nursing home and checked in. A badge swinging from my neck identified me as a hospice volunteer. When I arrived on the right floor, a nurse directed me to a common area and pointed out where Mrs. T sat. Her frail 90-pound-or-so body slouched in a wheelchair. Her thinning white hair looked mussed from sleeping. Her face looked frail, almost skeletal, and wrinkles ran across her face in abundance. Her best features were her blue eyes; they brightened when I approached.
She attempted to greet me when I introduced myself, but only a guttural, unintelligible sound came out, and drool dribbled down her chin. I grabbed a tissue and helped her wipe it away. Silently, I thought I wasn’t prepared for this visit, but mentally. I knew I’d get through it and come back.
I introduced myself again and pointed to my hospice tag. Then I shared a 15-minute monologue about my children and husband. Intermittently, I asked if she had children and encouraged her to hold up fingers indicating how many. Unfortunately, this was too difficult, and I finally held up my own fingers. She nodded when I indicated the number of children she had. Minutes later, a nurse’s assistant told me it was time to wheel her back to her room for medication. I said goodbye and promised to visit again.
Before I left, I approached the nurse’s station. “Do Mrs. T's children visit?”
“No, they don’t live close. One of them comes around the holidays, but they never stay long.”
“What a shame,” I replied.
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“It’s fairly common.”
Sadly, I was not surprised. It was a solid mid-tier nursing home. It was depressing. My own comfort level tipped the scales at uncomfortable, and I was not even visiting a dear one—just a stranger I barely knew.
What do you say when you know a loved one is terminally ill? When they are merely a shell of a human being hanging onto life with no chance of having a decent quality? How do you handle when they can no longer communicate with you or stare vacantly as though they do not even realize you are there?
Yet, from my limited experience and my conversations with other volunteers, I believe many of the hospice patients who had family visit them were the ones who defied the odds, so perhaps family visits do make a difference. Many of those patients clung to life and seemed to do a little better than many patients who seem to be forgotten by their families.
I am not sure what I brought to Mrs. T's existence during our brief weekly visits. I only knew her for five weeks before she passed. However, she taught me how to become more comfortable in an environment that scared me.
What I Did During Subsequent Hospice Visits
Here is what I did to maximize the quality time of my visits with Mrs. T and other patients.
- I was cheerful.
- I brought props to stimulate her and keep our visit interesting. Sometimes it was photos of my family, and other times I shared a photo album of a special occasion. I flipped through the photos and explained them. I often asked ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. Sometimes she would nod. If she was unable to nod, I would ask her to blink once for 'yes' and twice for 'no.'
- Sometimes I read to her.
- If it was a nice day, I’d wheel her out to the courtyard or terrace, so she could enjoy the sunshine.
It felt good to be able to brighten her day, if only for a few minutes. When I saw other patients, I felt a little more prepared than I was for my first visit with Mrs. T.
Sometimes I would go directly to the patient's room. If I was lucky, there might be a few personal items that clued me in to their interests. If possible, I brought props that were tailored to their interests. I paid attention to the time of day I planned my visits. Some patients were more attentive in the morning; others were late afternoon people. However, I never really knew how my visit would go until I arrived.
Nevertheless, visiting hospice patients was a positive experience that I think most people should experience. I think it prepares you better for life and death.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Abby Slutsky
Abby Slutsky (author) from America on March 26, 2021:
Thanks for reading. I appreciate your kind fan mail.
Mubarak from INDIA on March 26, 2021:
Great experience of visiting hospice patient. Well done
Abby Slutsky (author) from America on March 26, 2021:
Thanks for reading. You meet a lot of special people. The nice thing is that there a lot of interesting opportunities within volunteering there. Some people also do bereavement counseling.
Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on March 26, 2021:
Thanks for sharing your experience of volunteering in a hospice. This is something I have always been interested in doing.