Volunteering to be a hospice care worker is one of the most selfless ways to help others, but many people aren’t sure exactly what is involved in providing hospice or palliative care. There are misconceptions about what a hospice volunteer can and can’t do and what they can expect. In fact, volunteers are an integral part of every hospice care team.
What Does a Hospice Volunteer Do?
Each hospice team will have medical professionals on it, such as doctors, nurses and social workers, but a volunteer is a requirement as well. You will be considered a valuable team member who may take on a variety of tasks for the patient. You will focus on improving the comfort and quality of life for the patients you work with. This covers a wide range of activities and may include:
- Assisting with shopping, bill paying and mail
- Doing chores, such as laundry or cleaning
- Helping with pet care (walking the dog, cleaning the litter box)
- Reading to patient, watching television, etc.
- Encouraging the sharing of memories
- Helping them fulfill their final wish list
- Making sure the patient is comfortable and well cared for
- Providing companionship and human contact
- Offering respite for family members
- Helping to make final arrangements
- Being someone to talk to and share fears with
- Assisting office personnel as administrative volunteer
No two hospice patients are alike, so your experience will vary with each patient, but there is a common thread running through all – the need for human companionship, understanding and dignity at the end of life. As a hospice care volunteer, you can give a dying patient what he or she needs in a variety of ways.
Whether you are simply holding someone’s hand while watching television, sorting yarn for an avid knitter or reading to someone with poor vision, you will forge a bond with each person that will be critical to his or her sense of dignity and friendship as the end approaches. You will also be providing crucial respite opportunities to family members who are often the primary caregivers for individuals in hospice. You may be called upon to sit vigil with a family or offer your emotional support during bereavement.
Hospice volunteers often say that their work is challenging and at times stressful, but they also say that it is life affirming and rewarding. It helps them focus on the needs of others and gives them the opportunity to be selfless and needed in a unique way. They also form strong relationships with the people in their care and learn a great deal from them. When someone in their care passes away, they miss them and honor their memories, but they are confident that they enriched that person’s final days.
For some frequently asked questions about volunteering, please see our Hospice Volunteer FAQ.
How Important Is the Hospice Volunteer?
As mentioned earlier, volunteers are required – literally – on every hospice care team. Medicare requires that at least 5% of the provided care comes from a volunteer. This keeps costs down, gives a break to family members and provides each patient with someone to confide in and talk to who isn’t a medical professional or social worker. For many people, a volunteer is the only person who isn’t treating them medically or as a professional. You are a friend and companion; these are roles that are critical to a patient’s mental health in the final weeks or months of life.
Hospice vs. Palliative Care Volunteers
If you would like to help others through difficult health issues such as cancer treatment or other long-term or chronic health issues, this may be an option. Palliative service is often started as soon as there is a diagnosis or when a treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation is begun. Palliative care also focuses on the comfort and well-being of a patient, but death is not the expected, short-term outcome.
Palliative care is often offered to people with such chronic illnesses as:
- Heart disease
- Lung diseases such as emphysema
- Dementia or Alzheimer’s
- ALS or MS
- Kidney failure
- HIV or AIDS
The assistance you will give as a palliative care volunteer is essentially the same as what you will offer to hospice patients, but there will not be the immediate end-of-life issues to content with. You may provide practical assistance, but emotional and spiritual support will also be important. Your companionship can temporarily take their minds off their illness and give them moments of normalcy.
How Will You Feel?
The stories of hospice/palliative volunteers are the stories of triumph, not tragedy. You are a valued team member who is welcomed by a family or individual. You’ll experience a wide range of emotions, (read about grief management)but every volunteer will tell you that they love what they do. They’ll even say there are moments of humor and joy to be found in hospice as they get to know the families in their care. Giving respite to family members and comforting patients is a valuable element of preparing them for the inevitable. You will be giving dignity and beauty to the last days of someone who is approaching the end of life, and that is a wonderful gift. To understand more, read about the History of Hospice Care and Palliative Care.
Becoming a Hospice Care Volunteer
There are many organizations across the country offering training and volunteer opportunities. Two national organizations with resources and information are the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and the Hospice Foundation of America. Family Comfort Hospice is also looking for companionship volunteers for our patients.