John has lung cancer and is in the final stages of his illness. There is
nothing that can be done to cure his condition, but John is still receiving
help. Hospice workers and volunteers do all they can to relieve his pain and
discomfort, and to make his last days as comfortable as possible.
Hospice volunteers provide comfort and support to patients and their families
when an illness no longer responds to treatment. Their aim is to improve patients'
last days so they can die with dignity.
In addition to controlling pain and discomfort, this work involves seeing
to a patient's emotional, spiritual and social needs. Hospice volunteers can
assist patients in these areas, as well as offer bereavement counseling to
the family before and after the patient's death.
There are many different areas in which a person can volunteer. "It can
mean sitting with a patient while a family member has to go out for a while,
or phoning the family after the death to make sure they have everything they
need," says Michon Lartigue, who works for a hospice foundation.
It can be difficult at times working closely with grief and death. However,
many volunteers say knowing they're easing the suffering of others is rewarding.
"Anybody who is a really compassionate person can do this work," says Lartigue.
Not all volunteers are required to deal with tough situations. "People
are always needed in administration, to help file and process information,"
says Lartigue. "There are many different ways to help with hospice care."
The idea of modern hospice care is relatively new. The concept of providing
special care for the terminally ill and their families began in the 1960s
in England. At that time, Dr. Cicely Saunders, who worked at St. Christopher's
Hospital in London, saw a need for people to die in comfort and with dignity.
It wasn't until 1974 that hospice care spread to North America, when the
first hospice care facility was opened in the United States. Today, more than
3,000 hospice programs operate in the United States.
"You're seen as an angel," says Heather Leveque, a hospice volunteer. "What
you do touches people so much that it can't help but be rewarding."
Leveque became a hospice volunteer six years ago. She had always volunteered
around the community, but began to look for something that she felt was really
worthwhile. She found her cause in hospice care.
Helping someone die and helping their family through their grief is a gratifying
lesson. "You can feel that your services are really appreciated," she says.
"You are a part of a team that is helping someone spend the last days of their
lives in comfort. It's good to see it actually happening."
How do others decide they want to volunteer in hospice care? "A lot of
volunteers have lost a loved one and want to help other people through the
process," says hospice worker Mary Beth McFadden.
The center where McFadden works offers support not only to people with
life-threatening illnesses, but also to caregivers. "With our volunteer work,
these people can come together and gather strength from each other," she says.
"They can talk about how to conquer their feelings."
Children who have lost a parent or are living with a dying parent can also
receive support. "It's important for them to get information and support about
the situation," says McFadden.
Who volunteers at hospices? Most people are at least age 18 and have graduated
from high school. And although most hospice volunteers are women, men are
welcome as well. "There certainly are more women volunteering," says McFadden.
Although most hospice work takes place in the home or in a hospital setting,
some care associations are trying different methods of helping people. In
Waterville, Maine, Catherine Ladd volunteers at a weekend retreat where individuals
and families can go through the grieving process together.
"It takes place in a campground where each family has their own cabin,"
says Ladd. "We then have a variety of activities set up that help people through
different situations. It may be for parents who have lost children or it might
be workshops on anger management." The activities are tailored to the needs
of those who attend the weekend retreat.
Ladd, who generally does administrative work at the hospice, finds this
work rewarding. "This is about helping other people, and making a difference
in their lives," she says.
Leveque spends much of her time in respite care, which means that she fills
in for family members when they need a break from sitting alongside their
loved one. "You're just there to help a caregiver get away for awhile, or
just while that person can get some sleep."
She says just being in the house is such a help for the family. "You really
take a burden off the caregiver, who could be a wife or a parent of a child
who is dying."
The work can be difficult. "I used to say that anybody could do this, but
I don't anymore," says Leveque. "Some people are too overwhelmed to be around
someone who is dying." But Leveque is willing to endure the process. "You
help people when they most need it, and that is so rewarding."
How to Get Involved
Anybody can become involved in hospice care. "Most programs need volunteers
all the time," says Lartigue.
Each hospice society or organization provides training for volunteers.
This training can vary in length, according to the type of work being done.
For example, someone volunteering in administration may not need as much training
as someone interested in bereavement counseling.
Most volunteers receive 24 hours of training and visit with social workers,
nurses and chaplains to understand the job. Volunteers are generally accompanied
on their first visits and can receive counseling or advice at anytime.
People volunteering in hospice care should be compassionate, patient and
caring people. There are no physical requirements for hospice workers because
of the many different tasks that can be performed. For some work, mobility
may be necessary as nearly 80 percent of hospice care is provided in a patient's
"We have young people who are wonderful volunteers," says Leveque.
Contact your local hospital, palliative care unit or the phone book to
find a hospice society near you.
Hospice Foundation of America
2001 S. St. N.W., Ste. 100
Children's Hospice International
This group cares for children with life-threatening diseases
National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization Database
Find a hospice program
The Hospice: Volunteer
Back to Career Cluster
All about hospice care and volunteering