Kindness, compassion, and service are hallmarks of those who give freely of their time for the betterment of others. They are called volunteers — and they make a huge impact by providing emotional, practical, and social support for hospice patients with a life-limiting illness and their families.
“Volunteers help provide emotional support for the entire family,” said Debra Wyatt, Volunteer Coordinator for Heart to Heart Hospice in Texas for the past 16 years. “We help take the focus off the disease and bring some normalcy and predictability in a time when they feel they have little or no control over things.”
National Volunteer Week is April 16-22, 2023, and Heart to Heart Hospice wants to spotlight our big-hearted volunteers and how they serve. The Points of Light organization hosts volunteer week to “ shine a light on the people and causes that inspire us to serve, recognizing and thanking volunteers who lend their time, talent and voice to make a difference in their communities.”
What Hospice Volunteers Do
Caregiving for a hospice patient often falls to family members or close loved ones, with high rates of caregiver burnout, stress, and exhaustion. They are supported by a care team of compassionate nurses, aides, social workers, spiritual care coordinators, dieticians, bereavement coordinators, and finally, hospice volunteers.
Volunteers help ease the burden on the care team, who can’t be with the patient 24/7, and for the families. Carrying just a small piece of the burden provides encouragement to families, who know their loved one is getting attention from a volunteer who chose to spend their free time serving others in this tender season of life.
Volunteers selflessly become friends, listenters, and helpers to the families they serve. They often form special bonds with the families and find they are mutually blessed by the relationship.
“Volunteers get more out of it than what we give,” says Wyatt. “It keeps you grounded on what’s important, that relationships and memories mean the most.” She said that volunteers are often surprised that many hospice patients are still interacting, displaying their unique personalities and preferences, and are able to share their lives.
What are some ways volunteers provide support? They:
- Visit patients in their homes or in hospice facilities, offering conversation and companionship.
- Provide a break for family members or caregivers, allowing them time for rest, self-care, or to run errands or go to appointments.
- Assist with practical tasks such as meal preparation, light housekeeping, or doing yardwork.
- Interact with patients by reading to them, playing games with them, or other activities.
- Offer emotional support to patients and family members by listening to concerns and offering encouragement.
- Gather important stories or messages for the family in a Memory Journal, video, or other means (with permission).
- Provide spiritual support by reading devotionals/scripture and playing hymns for them.
- Assist with grief and bereavement support groups, or disease-specific groups like cancer or dementia.
- Help organize special activities for patients and their families, such as a small celebration.
- Offer comfort and relaxation to patients and families via certified pet therapy dogs or music or art therapy.
- Assist with administrative staff with answering phones, making copies, filing, and other tasks.
Ellen Holland, Heart to Heart Hospice Volunteer Coordinator in Southwest Indiana, shares this heartwarming real-life example: “One of our volunteers would go every Tuesday evening to visit her patient who lived alone. She would either bring dinner or ingredients to fix dinner. Our volunteer would then sit down and they would eat together. She would clean up and then they would have Bible study time. The patient told me that her volunteer’s visit was the highlight of her week. She enjoyed having Bible study since she couldn’t get out to church anymore and she said it was so nice not to eat alone and have a fresh good meal. She said her volunteer was truly an angel on Earth.”
Wyatt adds that it’s a gift to patients to help break up the monotony, whether in the home or a nursing facility, by taking the patient outside, assisting them to a nursing home activity, or doing something the patient enjoys, like playing a game. “It gives them something to look forward to,” she says, adding that their visits provide a break for the caregiver as well.
Based on availability, volunteers schedule visits about once a week or twice a month, and are matched with a patient for consistency to build trust and rapport.
Hospice Volunteer Training & Areas of Service
Hospice care teams are organized to support the patient and their caregivers. They provide medical care, caregiver education, counseling, and whole-health care for mind, body, and spirit. Hospice volunteers, then, offer support in numerous areas, including:
- Administrative support
- Bereavement support
- Pet therapy
- Patient and family support
- Grief support
- Music enhancement
- Other areas that meet your expertise.
Hospice volunteers are matched from a variety of sources: a national volunteer website (volunteermatch.org) where hospice positions are posted and matched; medical students needing hours who find themselves grateful for education on this end-stage of healthcare; family and friends with positive hospice experiences; and through personal interactions and relationships in the community.
To become a hospice volunteer, you might wonder:
- Do I need a medical background?
- Do I need to know medical terminology?
- Do I need a certain educational background?
The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Hospice volunteers only need the desire and ability to serve others and a compassionate disposition.
After a background check and approval process, the hospice provider matches the volunteer’s skills to an appropriate area of service. Heart to Heart Hospice is lauded for its thorough training, removing the mystery and potential fears surrounding hospice. They educate volunteers on everything from “What is hospice?” to family dynamics, communication skills, the dying process, grief, and bereavement. As a volunteer coordinator, Wyatt goes on the first patient visit with a new volunteer.
If you want to be a volunteer with Heart to Heart Hospice in Indiana, Michigan, or Texas, fill out our volunteer interest form. Thank you to all of our Heart to Heart Hospice volunteers; we could not provide the needed level of comfort, support, and dignity without you!