Hospice training prepares volunteers

Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Hospice and Home Care of Juneau will begin its fall 2002 In-Home Volunteer Training on Sept. 24. It will provide an opportunity for interested individuals to learn effective and compassionate ways of supporting terminally ill people and their families during one of life's most challenging transitions. With both experiential and educational components, the training will explore participants' personal experiences with illness, death, loss, grief and healing, as well as teach the hands-on skills needed to support those facing end-of-life issues.

I attended the HHCJ in-home volunteer training in 2000. There were nine of us, seven women and two men, and we were a pretty diverse group: real estate agent, education administrator, deputy press secretary, chef, massage therapist, retired government worker, general contractor, at-home mother, and substance abuse prevention coordinator. Among us were Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, Unitarian-Universalists, and those whose faith was non-denominational. Most of us had experienced a personal loss due to death, and many of us were there because we were looking for a way to "give back" to our community.

At first, we were shy with each other and hesitant about offering personal information on such emotionally charged subjects as dying and grieving, but our awkwardness lessened each time we met. Role-playing possible hospice scenarios triggered high anxiety for some; sharing personal stories brought tears to most; but the thing that really surprised me was how often we laughed during our time together. And not that terrible kind of laughter that comes when it is most inappropriate; we laughed until our stomachs hurt because life can be hilarious and silly and absurd even in its darkest moments. That's one of the things that many people don't understand about hospice - that the work is often filled with joy.

I approached my first hospice client with shaking hands and a feeling of - if I want to be honest - dread. Even though I was a trained volunteer and had spent time around seriously ill people before, I doubted my ability to say the right thing or offer useful support. Once we got past the first few awkward moments, it became clear that all I really needed to do was be fully present and offer myself with an open heart. And yes, sometimes I have said things that made me cringe with embarrassment later on, but I know that I do not need to be perfect to be a good volunteer.

I asked Hank Lentfer how he felt about being a hospice volunteer and he offered me this. "In the exchange of authentic gifts, the ones that change lives, it is often hard to tell who is giving and who is receiving. Being a hospice volunteer is one such example where the lines blur. From the outset, volunteers are trained to help others, yet in my experience, the rewards to the volunteer are immediate and profound. The training itself exposes one to intriguing dialogue about life's most universal questions. Buddhists believe that focusing on death is the supreme meditation. Hospice work is just that, an engaged, interactive meditation. Through the in-home volunteer training and the privilege of being in people's homes we learn lessons which enrich our lives and remind us that those lives are preciously short."

As a hospice volunteer I am always inspired by the extraordinary courage of ordinary people. Illness often brings suffering and I am amazed by the grace with which this suffering is endured. I've heard caregivers say, "I can't do this," yet, with the right support, they can do it and they do it magnificently. All of this brings a breathtaking degree of hopefulness to my life; that I may endure suffering with courage and grace, and do the things I think I cannot do.

Author Erma Bombeck wrote, "Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation's compassion, unselfish caring, patience and love toward one another." We look forward to meeting the unselfish, caring and compassionate individuals who attend our 2002 volunteer training.

The dates for the volunteer training are Tuesdays, Sept. 24, Oct. 1 and Oct. 8 from 6 to 8:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10 from 6 to 8:30 p.m.; and Saturdays, Sept. 28, Oct. 5 and Oct. 12 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. A commitment to attend all sessions is required. Space is limited and interested individuals should pre-register by Sept. 12. For more information or to request an application please call volunteer coordinator, Mary Cook at 463-3113.

Mary Cook is the volunteer coordinator at Hospice and Home Care of Juneau.

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