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.