Being Present as a Hospice Volunteer

Categories: Care and Opinion.

Photo: Care Dimensions volunteer Trish Cannon offers a comforting presence to hospice patients.

When you meet someone in the United States, the conversation typically includes the question, “What do you do?” Our culture defines us by what we do for a living.

After I retired from work as a licensed mental health counselor, I spent 10 years in Mexico, where it wasn’t about “doing,” but all about “being.” Who was I, besides what was on my resume? What did it mean to just be?

After 10 years of looking at myself – and those around me – differently, I returned home to Beverly, MA, where I wanted to use my new perspective to help pay a debt of gratitude.

Hospice experience led to volunteering

Care Dimensions’ dedicated staff helped both my parents have a peaceful death at home when the company was called Hospice of the North Shore. My dad died in 1994. I was more involved in my mom’s care several years later. Her health was failing, and she wanted to stay in her own home, so I moved in with her for a year. The hospice workers – an aide, nurse, and chaplain – all treated her with gentleness and respect. They also took care of our family and taught us how to care for Mom, leading up to and including her death. We were with her throughout her end-of-life journey, which meant so much to us. I felt immensely grateful.

I took hospice volunteer training with Care Dimensions in 2015 and visited patients in facilities and in their homes. I came to find that I could offer the most to people who aren’t able to converse much or they garble their words. They have something they seriously want to convey but can’t express it clearly.

It’s important to me to communicate with them, just as I remember doing with my parents at that point, or when I had small children. I want them to know that I am there and they’re not alone.

I remember sitting with a woman who never said a word, but her eyes were open. She often would make a certain movement, and I recognized that she was “ironing.” I sat with her and just watched for a bit and said, “Oh my word, I love to iron!” while making a similar motion. She showed a hint of a smile. I made a connection.

Being present

There’s something about being in the presence of a person who does not respond much. When I arrive, I say my name, gently touch them, and tell them I am going to sit with them for a while. I may speak a bit or sit quietly. It’s a huge gift – to them, and to me. Each of us is in the presence of another human.

If you volunteer with a hospice patient in this manner, you may not think you’re doing anything, but you are. You’re being with that person. When someone’s at the end of their life, they can’t do anything anymore. Some can’t even talk. Now they’re being. That’s what I learned in Mexico. That’s what I connect with.

I believe that people come in and out of my life for a reason. It’s a mystery and I love it. I get called to visit a patient and wonder, “Why this person and not another?” I’m part of their life for whatever time they have and they’re part of mine.

I recently visited a hospice patient who is in her nineties and told me, “Yes, sometimes when you’re this age, you get lonely.” If I can sit with people like that so they know there’s someone else there who cares, then that’s what being is to me.

Being with hospice patients as a volunteer is rewarding and fulfilling. I plan to keep doing this as long as I can.

Learn about volunteering with Care Dimensions.


About the author
Trish Cannon is a hospice volunteer with Care Dimensions. She resides in Beverly.

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