Hospice volunteers provide caring to the terminally ill
If life is made up of choices, when should our options end?
According to the philosophy of hospice care, the choices should end the day we die and not before.
“Hospice offers people the chance to stay home, to hopefully be more comfortable there, and in the end it is better for family members, too,” said John Grady, volunteer and bereavement coordinator for Hospice of the Valley, a division of Barton Memorial Hospital’s Home Health agency.
“When a patient goes into hospice, they have admitted the disease has won, and at this point it becomes important to make them comfortable and help with end-of life issues for both the patient and their family,” he said.
While these kinds of issues are painful for most people to face, for some they cannot be ignored.
Geraldine Donahoe, 84, has been a hospice patient since last year. Battling cancer from her Gardnerville Ranchos home, requiring round-the-clock oxygen, she is cared for by a hospice team, always under the watchful eye of her husband, Frank.
“I tell you, it’s been a real blessing,” said Gerry, as friends and family call her. “I have terminal cancer and before, I didn’t know such a program existed, but I feel very fortunate to be able to be home.”
Grady said there are three conditions that patients opting for hospice care need to meet before being eligible for hospice: the patient should be diagnosed with six months or less to live, no aggressive treatments should be ongoing, and there needs to be either a family member or friend available to be home with the patient.
nVolunteers play key role. Volunteers are an important part of the hospice team, Grady said, and, like him, they usually fall into it after a personal experience. Grady, 49, became introduced to hospice care in 1985 when his family utilized the program for his dying brother.
“Hospice was very helpful for my family and I know my brother appreciated being home,” he said. “I began to volunteer after that experience. For most volunteers, it’s a chance to give something back.
Following 18 hours of training, volunteers at both Hospice of the Valley and Hospice of the Lake are asked to commit to at least one year, working a minimum of four hours per week.
“The training can be emotionally tough, though, because you have to face these hard issues,” Grady said.
Volunteers may serve the family in a variety of non-medical ways – visiting, shopping, reading, mailing letters – whatever that particular family may need.
Grady was a volunteer for many years until asked to join the staff at Barton’s Home Health/Hospice Agency.
“People ask me if my job is depressing and I tell them it’s not,” he said. “It really tells me to enjoy my time, and when I see these people with real life-and-death struggles, it belittles all the petty things that other people complain about.”
n It takes a team effort. The hospice “palliative team,” geared at easing discomfort for everyone, consists of the patient’s physician, the medical director of the program, the home health/hospice director, clinical supervisor, hospice nurse, social worker, dietician, pharmacist, bereavement coordinator and any therapists who are needed (physical, occupational, speech, etc.).
Together, these individuals work to integrate their services into a smooth experience for the patient and their family, as the stated goal at Barton’s hospice is “to ease the suffering of the terminally ill people and their family and friends.”
In addition to the medical concerns of the patient’s health, other daunting factors such as social, money, family, and dealing-with-death issues can also be addressed through the hospice team, Grady said.
Jill Kirkpatrick, RN, the case manager for Gerry Donahoe’s hospice care, said that each case is different, as patients and families deal with the inevitability of death.
“When we go into their home, we’re on their turf,” she said. “We try our best to help people with what can be a precious time in their lives. Gerry is a fascinating woman and she’s taught me a lot about dealing with people.”
n It’s the cycle of life. Norma Corder, director of public relations/marketing for Barton, said patients are usually referred to the hospice program through physician referral.
“At some point, the physician will tell the family, ‘Take your loved one home to the comfort of familiar surroundings,'” she said. “And that’s where we come in.”
Corder said the hospice program is not a money maker for the hospital. Medicare and many other insurance providers often cover hospice care.
“This is definitely a service we provide, and it’s a logical extension of our home health,” she said. “No one wants to face death, but hospice can be a big help in a really, really rough time in peoples’ lives. Death is something none of us wants to face, but it is the cycle of life and we’ll all face it. For the family of the person who is dying, they receive support where before they never knew it was available.”
n Follow-up available. A one-year bereavement program is available to family members following the death of their loved one, Grady said. Services can include support groups and grief counseling.
“There’s healthy grief and there’s unhealthy grief,” he said. “This is a sad time, for sure, but it can be a profound time, too.”
The Hospice of the Valley has been in operation for more than a year. Its sister group, the Hospice of the Lake, serves the South Lake Tahoe basin, while the Valley organization focuses on Douglas, Carson and Lyon counties.
For Gerry Donahoe and her family, which includes Frank, six grown children and assorted grandchildren, the choice hospice afforded them has been invaluable.
As is sometimes the case, the freedom to be home instead of in a hospital or nursing home, is literally a life preserver.
“I was so fortunate to be able to be home,” Gerry said. “It’s been a Godsend – without it, I know it would have been absolutely fatal.”
If you are interested in volunteering or learning more about hospice, call Grady at the Carson Valley Medical Center, 782-1510 or Barton Memorial hospital at (800) 433-7534 or (530) 542-3171.
Pullout – November is National Hospice Month. In the Carson Valley, several families are involved in hospice care, whether as patients, family members, care givers or volunteers.
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