One of the things I do with my spare time is volunteer for Holy Family Hospice. The hospice runs, in large part, on donations – both of money and of time. They have volunteers help with laundry, cooking, cleaning, office work, visiting patients, and sitting vigil. Depending on your level of comfort and the amount of time you can put in, you can do almost anything to help. One of the reasons I got involved there was because my mother is a nurse and Clinical Manager there. Another reason is that my grandmother was a patient with the hospice when she was dying, and her experience with hospice made me want to be involved and to help people have the same peaceful, loving experience she had. But there are plenty of other reasons I’ve stayed on.
I really enjoy visiting the hospice patients. I know that sounds morbid, but bear with me. There’s something altogether different about the experience. You’re visiting with all different people – mostly older, but some younger; some with large families and some who are alone; from all different walks of life. You’re visiting with people who are dying and know it (although whether they accept it is a different question). It’s amazing what you can learn from a fifteen-minute conversation with someone you’ve never met before.
Visiting with patients seemed like a pretty natural thing to me – just say hi and chat with someone for a bit. But there are difficulties involved: the patient may be “pleasantly confused,” may not like speaking to a woman (it happens with the old-school types), may not be up for a visit, or may just not like you in general. But those things happen, and you can’t take it personally.
My first assignment visiting patients was to visit Betty* (*not her real name), a 100-year-old woman who was still living at home with a full-time caregiver. I was nervous; not only was I going to the home of a stranger, but the only thing I knew about that stranger was that she was dying. I walked into her million-degree kitchen, introduced myself as a volunteer with the hospice, and asked how she was doing. We ended up talking for 45 minutes – her husband had been an attorney, and she had spent most of her working life acting as his paralegal. She told me about how they met, where they’d traveled, how they ended up together after so much time. She told me about her sons, about how the town had changed since she’d been living there. She told me about her caregiver and about a fall she’d taken a few months ago. And by the time I’d left, she asked me to come visit again and she loved talking to me.
I got to visit Betty four times – on Wednesdays around 5:00PM. Each time I visited her was different. The first time was pleasant, friendly conversation. The second time, she was having a difficult day and was “pleasantly confused,” as they say. She told me about vivid dreams she’d had about traveling to other countries, about a dream where she had to survive in the desert. She said her father had been with her the night before – she’d been so cold, but he’d kept her warm. She said her mother told her she was concerned about Betty’s teeth (because they were, after all, a hundred years old). She changed topics easily and started to confuse dates. But she just wanted to tell someone about it all.
Family members tend to have a hard time with that kind of conversation, I think. They feel like they need to correct the person, to set them straight, to tell them it didn’t really happen, to make sure they’re understanding the world the same way the family member sees it. I know it comes from a loving place – it’s hard to watch someone decline. But sometimes, the patient just wants to talk about it. Just wants to have a regular conversation about the irregular. So when Betty told me that (in the dream,) she’d reasoned that the heart of a tiger was the safest organ to eat, I didn’t tell her that was crazy or it was just a dream – I told her I’d have made the same decision.
One thing Betty seemed quite certain about – even if she didn’t know what day it was – was that she was at peace, that she’d said and done everything she wanted, and that she was ready to go when the time came. And she told me so
The fourth visit, I knew, would be our last; she was tired, had difficulty speaking, and she seemed anxious to tell me things as though she knew it would be the last time we talked. Before I left, she told me that she loved meeting me, and that she was so glad I came to visit her, even if she didn’t have anything important to say.
Betty passed away this past weekend. I’ll still be visiting her on Wednesday, but this time, it’ll be her wake.
Visiting with Betty reinforced something for me. No matter how many technological advances, no matter how many convenient ways to get in touch, no matter how our world changes, one thing doesn’t change: on a basic level, we’re social animals. We want to connect. We crave interaction. We need each other. For big things, for small things, for day-to-day things. Sometimes, we just want to talk. And there’s something to be said for simply being there for someone, even if you don’t know them that well.
It’s not depressing to volunteer for a hospice. Sometimes it’s difficult, and it can be emotional. But more than anything, it’s a different and great experience. It’s a chance to meet people, to talk with them, to learn from them, and to be there for them – even if only to smile and listen.