People often ask me how I became a hospice volunteer. For the record, nobody is more surprised than I am. You know how some people can walk into a patient’s room, plump pillows, and make all the right comments? Years ago, I was not that person. I never really felt comfortable visiting sick people. Working in the healthcare arena seemed depressing. Besides, I had made a conscious decision to become an educator when I was in fifth grade. Unlike many who have chosen hospice volunteering, my motivation had no connection with professional choice or with anyone close to me dying, although I had experienced that several times.
So, how did I get into this situation? I was principal of an urban public school located in an area of high poverty, crime, drugs, prostitution, and homelessness. Major problems of others clamored for space on my always-crowded plate. Over a three-year period, I was thrust into life-threatening predicaments of two men I didn’t know well who were suffering with AIDS, an infectious disease of the immune system caused by the HIV virus. They were my introduction to serious caregiving of the terminally ill.
The first man, who was in total denial about his condition, also had dementia that included daily harassment by invisible people. After he died, I sighed, thinking that scenario would never happen to me again. A year later, the second man showed up. Both men lacked strong support systems, which were crucial during the 1990’s when infected people were ostracized and dying quickly. My mother warned me to stay away from them or I might “catch” it.
But I didn’t stay away. I served as these men’s hospice volunteer without even realizing I was one. It just made good sense, and we all benefited from the experience. I discovered significant layers of myself that I never knew. After my involvement with the men ended, I ran into a friend who said she was performing service as a hospice volunteer. Her description of what she did sounded very familiar. A few weeks later, I read a newspaper ad about hospice volunteer training classes. I decided to get certified to do what I had already been doing and become even more prepared if somebody else ill showed up.
As an official hospice volunteer, I have had many terminally ill patients show up. End-of-life care for millions of aging baby boomers continues to challenge our healthcare system and society. More people are needed to dig into wells of themselves and provide solutions to these growing concerns. Consider becoming a hospice volunteer. Various assignments are available to accommodate your personal comfort zone. Your service as a hospice volunteer can be a win-win experience, even if you didn’t plan to be one.
-Frances Shani Parker is an elder care consultant and author of Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes. She blogs at the Hospice and Nursing Homes Blog.