Seniors find fulfillment volunteering at Hospice

MIDDLEBURY — You’d be forgiven for assuming that hospice care volunteering — the work of caring for the dying in their final weeks and months of life — is a somewhat dreary activity.
But according to those who practice it, this kind of volunteer work can prove to be a surprisingly rewarding, and deeply clarifying experience — especially as volunteers experience changes in their own lives.
“Sometimes people will say to me, ‘Oh, that must be so hard, and sad,’” said Priscilla Baker, the program director at Hospice Volunteer Services (HVS) at Middlebury. “Sometimes it is, but there are so many times I feel like I get back more than I give.”
Baker has worked at HVS since 2005, where she pulls from a pool of more than 100 local volunteers — nearly half of whom are retirees — to accompany patients nearing the end of life at Porter Hospital and nursing home.
Among her many volunteers are Mary Jane Washburn and Mary Lou Bright, both of whom completed the requisite 30-hour training years ago, and have practiced hospice care ever since.
“Physically and emotionally, it certainly hasn’t been easy,” said Washburn, who is 87. “But the idea is that whatever this person wants to do, that’s what you’ll do. Just that freedom — at this point, what does it matter? If there’s something you want to do, my goodness, do it!”
Washburn and her husband began volunteering with the program in the mid-1990s, soon after retiring to Vermont. Years later, the training she received would become crucial during a far more personal experience of illness.
“When my husband had cancer, we were so much better prepared for that experience,” she recalled. “I feel that he really lived every day to the fullest up till the day he died. It wasn’t a matter that he was dying — he was living, and that’s what I think of.”
Bright, who is 79, joined the very first HVS training class in 1983 after a personal health scare of her own. Once her training was complete, however, her own experience still felt too raw, compelling her to decline the initial offer to become a full-fledged volunteer.
Then, not long after, Bright’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, and Bright handled much of her loved one’s home care. “That was a very positive experience, and my hospice training came in handy,” she recalled. “From there, I decided to be a volunteer.”
In the years since they began working with HVS, Bright and Washburn say they’ve gained access to a caring community of fellow volunteers.
“The group of people within hospice has been such a good experience,” Washburn said. “I realize now that some of my closest friends and supporters are other hospice volunteers.”
Baker, too, feels lucky to coordinate volunteers like the two Marys.
“A big thing I like about my job is that people who feel the calling to do hospice volunteering are people like Mary Jane and Mary Lou,” she said. “Amazing people, and I get to hang out with them and grow friendships with them.”
While HVS’s program includes volunteers as young as college students, Baker noted that senior volunteers are able to apply a particular approach to their work.
“Those who are older bring to this experience their own life experiences, and their understanding of the changes that we go through as we age,” she said. “It can’t help but impact you personally, and influence how you think about things and how you live your life.
Washburn said that others of her generation could benefit from the new outlook provided by this kind of work. “Being a senior, it gave me a whole new perspective on mortality and later years of life, and a very positive feeling towards it,” she said. “I’m aware of that when I talk with other people my age and hear their fears and perspectives — I realize it’s because they didn’t have this training, to be in hospice.”
Bright agreed, noting the benefits that lie beyond the stigma.
“It’s hard to decide to go on hospice, because it does mean that the end of life is approaching — if you hear someone is on hospice, you say, ‘Oh dear,’” she said. “But to be part of it, you realize that every day is being celebrated. I hope that I’ll feel that way when the time comes.”

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