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Being There: An Encouraging Word About Hospice Care

By Nicholas Dowd, Senior Director Consulting

As I presented to a group of HealthStream’s Home Care and Hospice agency clients recently, I was reminded again of the important role hospice has played in my life and the lives of others I have known.

I was twenty-four years old and a young Assistant Administrator at a large skilled nursing facility when our older son was born at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines. It was a joyous event and one for which my wife had eagerly planned. As it happened however, only hours before our son’s birth, I had been asked to be at the bedside of an elderly woman in the skilled facility where I worked. As it turned out, I stood holding that woman’s hand as she passed from this life to the next.

In that 24-hour-period I experienced both ends of life’s spectrum –  the birth of our first baby, with family members happily awaiting the new arrival; and, the passing of a woman with no family present to comfort  her. The contrast was stark and left an indelible mark on me.

As do many life events, that pair of circumstances began to shape me in ways that didn’t become fully clear until years later when I knew I wanted to become a hospice volunteer. In fact, volunteering for hospice “duty” didn’t become a reality for me until 15 years later. Hospice was a relatively new service then and, in some ways, a controversial one. At that time its purpose was not well understood in all quarters, yet I knew instinctively – and firsthand the importance and eternal value of just being there for someone at a time that is the most important time in life.

Honoring Hospice Staffers and Sharing Three Insights Gained From Volunteering

This brief blog entry is first to salute hospice staff members and volunteers and to share three particular insights gained as I have had the honor of attending hospice patients over the years.

Being there- There is a way to be present with and for patients who are dying. It is to respect their way of life and who they are. I am not automatically there to do what I think needs to be done for them.  In fact, in the modern view of things, it may not appear that I am “doing” anything at all. Yet, just being there – perhaps sitting with them or reading to them or listening to a prayer - may be exactly what they need.  Even just a quiet, reassuring presence can be therapeutic.

Often, the hospice volunteer is providing respite for a weary spouse, adult child, or partner who has been bearing the burden of caregiving and “doing” for months – or, in some cases, a year or more. Or, if there is not family involved, the volunteer can be that all-important caring presence.

The clarity that comes - One experiences moments of clarity in life – the sudden understanding of an abstract concept, the realization that someone really loves you (or not), or any circumstance when “the light comes on” and we see things as they truly are. But, nothing clarifies like facing death and coming to terms with it.

As a hospice volunteer, one often sees life more clearly through the eyes of the patient who is about to “lose” his or hers. This doesn’t happen in all cases, of course. It depends on the circumstances. But, when it happens, the patient often becomes endowed with a vision that is much clearer than the clouded way the rest of us may see things in the midst of our busy lives. Life’s daily struggles can obscure perception rather than enhance it. But, when a person is left with only one last hurdle to cross, those daily struggles which once loomed so important fade into the background of the one-and-only reality. That which is most important can become amazingly distinct to patient, direct care providers and volunteers in those moments of eternal clarity.

Gifts from giving - As any hospice volunteer or care provider well understands, to give is to receive. Hospice cases are, of course, not all beauty and serenity leading to a graceful passing. There are many very difficult circumstances one encounters when being present with a hospice patient–fear of death; a life ending too soon; difficulties of family dynamics and residual guilt; hurtful words spoken long ago by a loved one; or perhaps, regret that some important words were never shared. These are all things, of course, that need to be treated with deference and sensitivity.

Yet, on balance, to be involved in hospice care is truly to receive by giving. It is a calling filled with intrinsic and often unrecognized rewards – including being blessed by those in your care who bravely and beautifully take their next step.

This blog post’s main goal is to shine a light of gratitude on all those who provide hospice care.

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