Volunteers: the chameleons of hospice care

If there is one thing I have learned as a hospice volunteer, it is that visits rarely go according to plan.

Usually, I am given basic information about a patient before my first visit: their name, diagnosis, level of orientation, and some of their likes and dislikes. Based on that information, I try to speculate what we might do together. I pack up board games, music CDs, or some craft projects and travel to find this person about whom I know so little. That uncertainty, however, is part of the beauty of being a hospice volunteer.

As a volunteer, I have no agenda. There are no assessments to make, no information to offer, and no medications to distribute. This can feel wonderfully freeing at times, and overwhelmingly confusing at others. Oftentimes, I approach a visit feeling woefully unprepared. “What will we talk about for three hours?” “How do I relate to someone with end stage dementia?” “Will the patient even like me?” These are all questions that myself and other volunteers ask ourselves, and they represent challenges that many of us have faced in the past.

Despite my inhibitions, few of these fears ever come to fruition. At the same time, few of my visits go according to the “plan”. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Take a patient that I visited in the fall. She had advanced cancer and was declining quickly. Based on her diagnosis, I was expecting to find someone with little energy. For some of our visits, I brought music along, thinking we could simply sit and listen. Instead, I found a woman filled with life, who quickly put me to work on Christmas crafts that she was making for friends. She passed away about a month later, but never stopped working. The CDs went untouched.

Jean Francis, the Holy Redeemer Hospice Volunteer Coordinator, tells all new volunteers the same thing: “you must be a chameleon.” I could not agree more. Hospice patients, like all people, cannot be predicted or placed into a mold. They will surprise you, and I have come to look forward to these surprises. Next time you visit a patient, whether it be as a nurse, a chaplain, a volunteer, or even a family member, challenge yourself to disregard your expectations.

You will be happy you did.


Erin Bouquet is spending a year with Holy Redeemer Hospice as part of her service with Redeemer Ministry Corps, a long term volunteer program for young adults. Redeemer Ministry Corps is sponsored by the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, and volunteers carry out the mission of the Sisters to bring a caring, comforting and healing presence to those in need through service in health care, social services and education. Next year, Erin plans to attend medical school. 

Holy Redeemer

Holy Redeemer

For nearly 80 years, the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer have served the community through their mission to care, comfort, and heal. The visionary Sisters created a health system committed to helping people achieve optimal health no matter where they are in life. This includes delivering exceptional medical care not only within the hospital, but also through our outpatient, home care, and long-term care facilities and services. As a result, our health system is well-positioned to serve the community now and in the future.
Holy Redeemer

7 Responses to “Volunteers: the chameleons of hospice care”

  1. Siobhan Ahmed

    Loved this article, being a Volunteer Coordinator and Patient Advocate I visit many patients. I always go with the thought in mind that this is there time if course there’s a back up plan but I always follow the patients plan. Its wonderful to see them be so happy just that you would care to spend time with them.

  2. Karen B. Kaplan

    Re: like being a chameleon: another image I like is that conversation is a jazzy dance. Not only is the volunteer, chaplain, etc. responding to the patient, the patient is in turn responding to your “move” and so on. -chaplain Karen, of offbeatcompassion.com

  3. Maggie Vescovich

    Maggie Vescovich

    Working as a Speech Therapist in Home Care, I can relate to this story for all my Home Care pts, whether they are on Hospice, or not!

    In fact, when I worked in a Hospital for 20 years, I found it helpful, sometimes, not to read too much of other’s impressions before I formed my own—rather, I took the chart with me, got to know the person behind the diagnoses first, and sifted thru the chart during the visit as needed. That way, I didn’t make too many assumptions before the visit, and I got to make my own conclusions by the end of the visit by getting to know the person first. And, maybe, they got to know a little bit about me, too. Isn’t that what its all about, building relationships with each other?

    Thanks for sharing! We are so fortunate to have you building those precious relationships with our Hospice patients!

  4. boomer98053

    If I’ve learned anything in my time of caregiving and advocating, it’s that you have to go with the flow. How delightful that Erin was able to be flexible with her patient: no strict agenda, expectations thrown to the side, and bending in the direction where the patient led her. Beautiful.


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