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Seeking volunteers to help patients in final days

SALLY TAYLOR

I find it deeply meaningful, spiritually nourishing and a humble privilege to be able to share part of the lives of hospice’s patients.
— Sally Taylor

MIDDLEBURY — Wanted: People with a little time and a lot of compassion to give to neighbors who are in the final days of their lives.

It’s an invitation to the community by Addison County Home Health & Hospice (ACHH&H), a New Haven-based nonprofit that’s looking to increase its corps of hospice volunteers. It’s a program that ACHH&H began forming just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit early last year. The organization had previously contracted with a separate nonprofit — End Of Life Services (EOLS) — for hospice helpers, but elected to start a program of its own in order to meld its clinical and volunteer functions, explained ACHH&H Executive Director Deb Wesley.

As previously reported by the Independent, EOLS is currently wrapping up its operations.

With COVID-19 cases now thankfully few and far between, ACHH&H is seeking to add to the dozen hospice volunteers who are now working with the organization’s approximately 50 hospice patients. Volunteers can give as little or as much time as they’d like. They aren’t asked to provide any medical assistance; that’s the job of the ACHH&H’s nurses and caregivers. Typically, the volunteers provide bedside respite to families of dying loved ones, and dispense simple acts of compassion and kindness. That might include reading a newspaper aloud, discussing shared interests, watching a favorite TV program together, driving a sick angler past his or her favorite fishing hole — or just being there.

“We try to match volunteers and patients who have things in common,” Wesley said. “It may just be that someone needs company during dinner. This is companionship, and being a good neighbor.”

Like ACHH&H employees, prospective hospice volunteers must submit to background checks and training to ensure they’re well-suited to, and prepared for, their new role. It’s not a service one can simply leap into without a primer on patient confidentiality and how to comfortably interact with folks in end-of-life situations.

“There’s a screening process,” Wesley said. “Not everyone is qualified to become a volunteer.”

An example of something that might at least temporarily disqualify a person from doing patient-facing volunteering, according to Wesley: If they’ve recently suffered a traumatic loss of their own.

“We would want them to wait a little, because you don’t want to bring your loss and your grief forward when you’re working and helping people,” Wesley explained.

Those entering the hospice volunteer program can conveniently complete the requisite 8-10 hours of training online, or ACHH&H officials will get in-person training for those who don’t have a computer, or don’t feel comfortable using one.

“They can jump in and do (the training) all at once, or dabble,” Wesley said. “Our goal is to meet the needs of our volunteers, and not make them meet our needs.”

The program can also provide great experience for folks considering a career change, according to Maureen Conrad, marketing & development manager for ACHH&H.

“This would be an interesting project for someone… who may be thinking about going into nursing, but hasn’t had a lot of exposure to really sick people and wanted to test the waters to see if this something they might want to do,” she said.

Volunteers are asked to occasionally gather for mutual support and to receive ongoing training.

“An important part of hospice is making sure no one is stressed or burdened,” Wesley said. “We want to have those times when we come together and have learning, but also have the ability to do it remotely.”

Heather Barry, the ACHH&H volunteer coordinator, is a constant resource for the trainees.

“It’s really coming together nicely,” Wesley said of the new program. “Our volunteers who are with us are really part of our team. They’re very engaged with the clinicians and our patients. I’ve had the fortunate privilege during the pandemic of having weekly conversations with them, as well as our employees. They truly fill a void and meet a great need for our hospice patients.”

REWARDING EXPERIENCE

Sally Taylor of Ripton has been a hospice volunteer for around a year. Prior to volunteering, she’d been in the banking industry and had served as an ordained Presbyterian minister.

“I decided to volunteer because in my ministry I loved the pastoral aspect of visiting people in the hospital or at home,” she said. “So when I saw the notice for hospice training, I decided to apply.”

Taylor has found the experience exceptionally rewarding.

“I find it deeply meaningful, spiritually nourishing and a humble privilege to be able to share part of the lives of hospice’s patients,” she said. “There is a gentleness in these visits, as well as growing relationships. I hope that the visits are helpful to our clients and their families.”

Volunteer Paul Gariepy enjoys doing for others, also hoping others will fill his place if/when he needs to be on the receiving end of a willing ear and comforting words.

“I am doing my part to pay it forward,” he said. “I love helping patients and families and, as karma goes, I hope someone will be available to help me when my time comes.”

Contact ACHH&H at 388-7259 for more information about its hospice volunteer program.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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