Hospice Volunteers – why bother?


“I don’t have time to organize hospice volunteers for this patient. Besides, don’t they just sit and make tea?”

Making tea is not such a bad thing and someone to be there is often just what is needed. However, hospice volunteers across Ontario do much more than that. In fact, in today’s stressed home-care system, volunteers can mean the difference between someone being able to die at home or having to go to the hospital.

In 2002, 13,000 hospice volunteers provided over 600,000 hours of care to patients in 400 communities across Ontario. In some of these communities, hospice volunteers become part of the team, providing valuable information to the physicians, nurses and other professionals who are caring for the patient. Hospice staff are skilled professionals. Experienced nurses or social workers, they see their role as that of liaison and team builder; working with the local CCAC, palliative care and family physicians and the volunteers to facilitate care of the patient and smooth the way for the family. Hospices recognize that no one service can provide effective palliative care alone and strive to make the concept of “team” a real and living one.

The role of the volunteer is governed by the particular hospice with which they work and the standards of the Hospice Association of Ontario (HAO). After an intensive screening (1 hour interview, reference and police checks), they all complete a 30-hour training program before being matched with a patient. All volunteers are closely supervised by staff, and are given a variety of opportunities to increase their knowledge and skills (classes in Therapeutic Touch, foot massage, spiritual care). Volunteers are guided by comprehensive policies and procedures that place strict boundaries on their conduct and the actions they may take.

Hospice volunteers come from all ages and stages, walks of life and backgrounds. All have a keen interest in people, an ability to sit back and “be” or to intuit those tasks that need to be done. They are flexible, thoughtful and most often have a great sense of humour. In a speech to the Hospice Association of Ontario in 1998, Hilary Weston said: “Every time I talk to a hospice volunteer, I am struck by the transcendental nature of the hospice movement, by the way that involvement in hospice care seems to endow volunteers with a greater vision of life, a wider understanding of the human condition…”

But what do they do? They can provide personal care to the patient, taking over from the primary caregiver for up to four hours each week. Caregivers are able to go out for coffee, visit the hairdresser or have a long sleep. Because volunteers work a four-hour shift, they often become an important person in the life of the patient who finds in them a confidante, unconnected to family politics or to the medical issues of their disease. The volunteer has the time to listen to stories from the past, to hear the pain born from certain past hurts, to discover what final wishes the patient might have and work to make them happen.

I wonder how it felt to be the woman whose volunteer helped her to take a last visit to her beloved summer cottage? Or the young man whose volunteer took him on a canoe trip-via video but complete with food cooked just outside his window on the patio and the sounds of water flowing via CD. Or the children who will have the letters and memories written by their mother with the help of the volunteer? Or the elderly woman, alone without relatives, whose volunteer wrote her exciting life story in a special scrapbook, complete with photos. “But who will you give this to? I have no one left in my family.” the woman asked the volunteer. “It’s for me”, replied the volunteer.” I have become your family and I want to remember you.”

Community palliative care is most effective when all partners are able to work together as a team. Including volunteers as part of your team will make a difference to you and to your patients. Contact your local hospice! You’ll find you will be glad you did.

For a moving account of home palliative care in action, read “Menya, an End of Life Story” available through grubstreet books, www.grubstreetbooks.ca

For more information about hospice volunteers and to find the hospice nearest you, visit the HAO web site www.hospice.on.ca or contact them directly at 1-800-349-3111 or info@hospice.on.ca