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Working in a Hospice

By Natalie Nolt. October 2012.

Natalie Nolt is a hospice volunteer in the USA and is passionate about reaching out to those who “seemed tossed away by their families or by society”.

“How Can you Do That?”

YEAH!!! I passed all the myriad background/screening tests I had to endure over the last week or two today.

What does that mean?

Well, starting next week, I can now go into people’s homes as part of my hospice volunteering, and not just in hospitals as I have been previously doing. The reactions to my decision to become a hospice volunteer have been surprising. The questions and comments ranged from “Why?” to “How can you do that?” to “God bless you” and “How depressing!” when I announced my plans to become a hospice volunteer four months ago.

Hopefully. when these folks have to face losing a loved one, they will be as blessed as I have been with positive experiences. Perhaps then they will understand why serving as a volunteer with a hospice speaks to me with the volume turned loud.

No Family or Loved Ones Who Care

The “patients” I am specifically assigned to have no family or loved ones who care – they are tossed aside as if they have no more value in “our” society; they are the forgotten.

I am not required to do more than a weekly visit of only 45 minutes at a time, but of course, I do more MUCH more than that: I always make sure to attend funerals – even where to have the body sent if they have no family, and their last dying wishes left only to me to fulfill, and to be there for any bereavement services needed afterwards.

These Magnificent People

What I have been doing most recently is making a record of the stories of these magnificent people. A record of a life once lived that can be retold, if only to me, for history to remember. As a historian this is so awesome to me....

Getting to know my “patients” and helping them through the toughest time of their lives is what I appreciate the most about being a hospice volunteer. I don't know of another position where you can do more for people. 

There is an understanding when you volunteer for hospice; the patients have all been told that they have six months or less to live.

Rather than continue with often-difficult or painful treatments that probably won't extend their lives, they have decided to stop trying for a cure. Instead, with the help of hospice care, they'll focus on comfort and on living whatever they have left of their lives to the fullest  – usually in their own homes.

Poverty Can Mean a Lonely Death

I haven't been assigned to any patients in their homes yet. Probably end of next week. I have been introduced to a re-opened facility (I say re-opened, because the state has closed them down three times); my first government run facility and what an eye opener! What is obvious the quality of care that ailing older adults experience –  in this case the terminally ill as well, is largely determined by their financial resources.

Money determines “how comfortably” you die?

Anyhow, it was so depressing. The moment I walked in, you could just feel the sadness. About 10 patients were in the facility’s “recreation” room. Left alone, all shoved in a corner, sitting there with blank looks on their faces.

Life's Universal Journey

I don’t think I can express in words how sad it was.

I'm going back to see my assigned patients tomorrow and I have a special treat for the whole unit: surprise them with a visit with my young daughter where she will dance and sing for all of them. My goal is to bring life to this place that seems to be a dumping ground for these beautiful people. I am so excited.

And actually, the patients I am to tend to are all women this time. I have a plan to introduce weekly activities and such to this “dark, lifeless” place. We'll see. I am hoping the staff will be open to such possibilities. I think anything to make their jobs easier may be welcomed.

And this is why I volunteer with a hospice. If I can make one moment more pleasant or if I can help bring an atmosphere of dignity to dying, then I have truly been blessed to have traveled along one of life’s universal journeys.

The thought of anyone taking their last breath alone is unfathomable; the thought that someone has a few weeks or months left here on Earth and I have had not the honor to hear their stories and feel their love is insane. To make one's passing as comfortable as possible is my duty as another human being.

“Would You Want to Die Alone?”

I often bring my daughter along with me. When I tell her some think it is not an atmosphere for a young child to be around, her response is, “Why? Am I too young to show love and compassion to someone even if they are dying?” No matter how we try to stop death from knocking at our door, we have yet to find a way to stop it…death is enviable.

What I can do is prevent someone dying alone. I have enough love in my heart to share, to make someone feel they have had it all their lifetime, even if it’s only for six months or one week.

The response I often give when asked “Why?” is, “Would you want to die alone?” The difference my daughter and I make in a life is priceless –  a difference between someone dying afraid and alone versus feeling loved and finally, at peace.

My question for those who ask now is “How could I not?”