Editor's note: This is the first in a series of op-ed columns focusing on hospice care.
“Hospice volunteer …?” The eyebrows move a little closer together. The voice lowers just a smidge. “Oh, I don’t know if I could do that …” They look off into the distance for a moment before coming back to the conversation. I’ve suggested the idea of becoming a volunteer with hospice a lot and it’s probably the most common reaction.
There’s no shortage of volunteer opportunities in the Brattleboro area. That’s one of the things that makes this area so great. Residents of Windham County really care about making life in southeastern Vermont better. We try our best to improve life for everyone. So why make yourself uncomfortable? Why even think about death and all that surrounds it? Because volunteering with Brattleboro Area Hospice is actually more about engaging in life.
I was nervous going in. I’m not going to lie. The volunteer training is 33 hours long and typically occurs over 11 weeks. As it turned out, those 11 weeks I spent going through training were wonderful. Yeah, it’s a bit uncomfortable at times. Yup, I cried. So did everyone else. We hear a lot about “safe spaces” these days and BAH clearly created such a space. We volunteers-to-be walked through a lot together during training, we shared some grief and some of life’s traumas large and small, and together we peeked into the unknowable dark that is the end of life. I came away from the training with a larger sense of who I am as a person and what is important to me, an increased appreciation for all of my relationships, and an almost indescribable feeling of being more engaged in life.
As a new volunteer, you will be mentored and supported by BAH. To ease the transition from training to volunteering the coordinators will gently walk you through what a client and their family needs. You get to choose where and when you feel comfortable taking that first step. It’s a big first step! When new volunteers “feel the fear and do it anyway,” they often find the experience deeply rewarding. Now that BAH is offering the option to have a volunteer mentor accompany you for your first visit, the transition is even smoother.
I’m going to guess that you are still imagining that as volunteers we spend our time sitting at the bedside of someone who is frail and withdrawn as they quietly slip away. While that may very occasionally be the case, more often than not we are there to engage in life.
As hospice volunteers we walk dogs, work in the garden side by side, wash dishes and tidy up, learn to make jewelry, chat and visit with family, watch afternoon TV while learning new crochet stitches with the client guiding us, talk about books and share recommendations, observe and listen, are respite for the family members who are caretakers so that they can take some time for themselves, play cards and games, talk about current events, run out to the store to see if we can find Moxie soda, and sometimes exchange houseplants. One client even taught his volunteer to drive a 4-wheeler when he wanted to tool around the yard but was no longer able to operate his beloved lawn mower!
We come into people’s homes and become a small part of their families, and it feels like an honor to be welcomed so warmly. Though I was scared and nervous at the start I came to understand that being a hospice volunteer consisted of just hanging out, being present and spending time with another human being. As Atul Gawande says in his book "Being Mortal," “Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.” And that “good life” is a goal for us as volunteers as well as for the clients with whom we share time.
Volunteering brings us the gifts of connection to our community, boosts our self-esteem, and builds our mental health, but volunteering with BAH and working directly with hospice clients takes it to another level. Addressing our personal fears, being a presence and a gentle ear, and being part of life’s biggest transition makes the volunteering experience richer. I know I’ve come away with a deeper appreciation for life, and I’m less annoyed at little things. Hospice volunteering can bring a perspective to our lives that can otherwise easily slip away amid the hustle and bustle of everyday living. I know that some people worry volunteering in this way may leave them feeling spent, but volunteers report it’s quite the opposite. Practicing compassion as a volunteer helps us grow more compassion, creates space in our hearts and in our minds, and is a mindset we can bring home with us and into our daily lives.
The volunteer coordinating team at BAH is always there offering help and guidance, checking in with volunteers regularly to offer support and to see how things are going. Often the client has more than one volunteer, so the service is shared among volunteers. I don’t know of a volunteer who ever felt alone; the sense of teamwork runs deep.
I understand that direct care volunteering with BAH is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if the thought has even crossed your mind for a moment, please consider it seriously. You can join the waitlist now for the next hospice volunteer training in the spring of 2022. If you’ve already been through the training but never got around to volunteering, it’s not too late to give them a call and talk about the possibility of doing so. By volunteering with BAH we have a rare opportunity to deepen our connection with our community and with life itself.
To learn more about Brattleboro Area Hospice go to www.brattleborohospice.org.