For the dying, hospice volunteers offer solace, companionship and sense of peace

loberle@islandpacket.comNovember 24, 2013 

Jeanelle Benek, the volunteer coordinator for Hospice Care of America in Beaufort and Hilton Head, stands with her guitar at Church of the Palms on Tuesday morning in Okatie after setting up for a bereavement workshop. Benek is a licensed music therapist and uses music in the bereavement workshops to help people.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

Late this August, two women came together to make the perfect day for June Green.

Laura Carroll and Jeannelle Benek threw a tea party for "Miss June." They sent handwritten invitations to her friends. They draped tables in Green's floral tablecloths and hand-knit lace that once belonged to Benek's great-grandmother. They lit lemon-scented candles.

They poured orange spice, Earl Grey and Jasmine tea from teapots into matching antique tea cups placed on hand-crocheted doiles.

They prepared dressed-up versions of her favorite dishes: lobster macaroni and cheese, tuna salad on croissants and chicken curry lettuce wraps that Green liked so much she asked to keep the leftovers.

When the 12 guests arrived to the apartment, they were impressed. "Oh, it's so nice," several exclaimed.

Benek brought her guitar, and the friends sang old favorites such as "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "You Are My Sunshine."

As they left, guests received homemade lavender soap. Carroll learned how to make it just for the occasion.

"It was just a day of celebrating her life," said Benek, the volunteer coordinator at Hospice Care of America.

Green, a dementia patient, has been on hospice since May.

Her illness has limited her life in many ways. Trips outside her retirement community apartment in Beaufort have become more and more infrequent, and Green began missing her social life and the companionship of friends.

While visiting one day, Carroll, a hospice volunteer who has helped Green for about six months, thought, "What can I do to bring some happiness here?"

Carroll's goal was that of all hospice volunteers: As hospice patients are dying, the volunteers come to help them live.

"As a hospice volunteer, you want to get their mind off of what is wrong with them and bring out what's good around," Carroll said, "For that day, it took some of the worry and some of the pain away.

"And she told us, 'I'll never forget this for the rest of my life.' "

THE HEART OF HOSPICE

Hospice care is about enhancing a person's quality of life when time is short. It began in earnest in America in the '70s, a movement driven by volunteers.

"It began with folks thinking there was a better way to experience the end of life," said Jon Radulovic, the spokesman for the National Hospice Palliative Care Organization.

When the federal government added hospice as a Medicare program in the early 1980s, it mandated that volunteers remain an active part; at least 5 percent of patient care hours must be provided by trained volunteers.

"Having those volunteers required helps keep the compassion alive and at the heart of hospice care," Radulovic said.

There are more than 400,000 trained volunteers in America. Their reasons for volunteering are varied, but many have a loved one who went through hospice and benefited from hospice volunteers.

"They come back and want to give their time and talents for other families and patients," Beaufort resident Candice Fritz said.

Fritz is one of those. She moved to Beaufort from California in 2003 to help care for her father-in-law when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

"It didn't dawn on me that hospice would use volunteers until we used them in my own family," said Fritz, who is now the volunteer coordinator for United Hospice in Beaufort.

A SIMPLE GIFT

Volunteers provide non-medical care for patients and respite for caregivers -- they show up so that caregivers can leave the home, they drive patients between doctors' appointments, they cook meals.

They bring different skills -- they play instruments, sing, listen, share stories, play checkers or poker. They bake cookies and knit sweaters. Some even have pets that are trained to provide therapy.

Sometimes, all a volunteer needs to do is be there.

Once a week before she died, Patsy Perry was joined by a hospice volunteer who would simply chat, read or watch TV with her.

"It was someone other than myself to talk with and a chance to have some social time," said her husband, Charles Perry. "It was something once a week she would look forward to."

Last November, Patsy Perry died after a four-year battle with Parkinson's disease, a rare blood cancer and Lewy body dementia. For two of those years, Charles Perry wouldn't leave his wife of almost 60 years -- the woman he had known and loved since they were children in Winston Salem, N.C. -- alone.

"She got to the point where she could not walk at all, couldn't get out of a chair, couldn't get in the bed, couldn't get in the shower, couldn't dress herself," Perry said.

During that time, he relied on family, friends from church and hospice volunteers to help him care for his wife around the clock.

"It gave me peace of mind. The hospice volunteers were very trustworthy, very reliable, and I felt very comfortable with them being here," he said. "They have the wherewithal, and know how to handle certain circumstances an untrained person wouldn't."

The time a volunteer spent in their home was a small gesture, a simple gift of time given to the Perrys. It allowed Perry to join the group of men he continues to have lunch with every Tuesday. It was time that allowed them to maintain a semblance of normalcy as their lives changed so drastically.

"It made my wife happy. She knew how much I loved that, and she didn't want me to miss it," Perry said. "So it meant a lot to her, and it meant a lot to me."

PARTNERS IN GRIEF

The time they give can mean a lot to the volunteers, too.

When Becky Mitchell began volunteering for hospice three years ago, one patient became a friend. Mitchell visited her a few hours every week. She would sing to her and hold her hand.

When the woman died six month after Mitchell met her, she grieved the loss. In fact, for the first several patients she helped, she found herself grieving.

"At first, it was very difficult," Mitchell said. "I would go through the grieving process. But the more I worked with these patients and the better I got to know them, the more I realized the best thing for them was to close their eyes, go to sleep and wake up in heaven."

Through volunteering, Mitchell has learned about life and death, about what it means to look forward to the other side.

"It has given me a totally new outlook on death," Mitchell said. "I guess even though I was a Christian, I had a little fear of death. But I'll ask them sometimes if they're afraid to die.

"Most of them say 'no.' "

Hospice is about comfort and compassion, and volunteers are there to help improve the quality of a person's life as it slips away.

"You have people doing it because they want to walk along with someone at the end of life's journey," Radulovic said. "With the duties of doctors and health care providers and realities of health care deliveries, you can ensure no one has to die alone."

RELATED CONTENT

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization website

United Hospice website

Hospice Care of America website

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