Hospice Volunteers Earn a ‘Paycheck of the Heart’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Sometimes, Violet Parker doesn’t get there in time.

As a member of the volunteer vigil team at Hospice of the Valley, her duty is to be at the bedsides of patients in their final hours. In some cases, the call comes late at night – or, depending on your view, early in the morning – informing her she needs to go a patient’s house or nursing home. That drive can take as long as an hour. 

Parker, a resident of Youngstown, gives her time to families with loved ones in hospice care, providing them with time off from what often is a physically and emotionally draining experience.

“Some of the diseases that these people deal with are very strenuous. People don’t realize they need a break,” she says. “For us to even go in for an hour or 45 minutes, just to give somebody a break, is a big thing to them.”

From time to time, Parker says, the vigil team has been on notice three or four days before a patient dies.

In yet other cases, the time is shorter, so short there isn’t enough time to get to a patient’s house.

“For some patients, I’ll spend an hour, hour-and-a-half, driving and when I get there, the patient dies shortly after,” Parker says.

When that happens, she isn’t discouraged.

“I can’t have retirement and do nothing, so I give back to the community. It’s more relaxing and refreshing to give back to others, knowing that going in and helping out isn’t just giving back to yourself,” Parker says. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Many of the nearly 300 volunteers at Hospice of the Valley are there because they benefited from having a volunteer present when a member of their family was in hospice, says Parker, who also volunteers to visit patients at their homes.

Sally Schneider, a Pittsburgh native and long-time resident of Hubbard, is another in-home and vigil volunteer. She joined the volunteer program after she retired. When her mother-in-law was in hospice care in Pittsburgh, she realized how much volunteers could help.

“When my mother-in-law and my mother were involved, there were people involved, giving up their time and their help. That’s what I’m trying to give back because we weren’t able to be there,” she says.

Most volunteers spend about two hours every week with the patients they’ve been paired with. They do what’s needed, whether light housework or driving them to a haircut or playing cards, or to offer family members a respite from taking care of the patients.

From every indication, Parker and Schneider agree, those respites, no matter how brief, are much appreciated

“Our volunteers are a huge support to family members,” says Rosemary Antonucci, manager of volunteer services for Hospice. “They can provide caregiver relief, by which I mean they spend time with a patient while the family member can go out shopping or to the bank or maybe they just want to get their hair done. It gives them a secure time that a volunteer is present with their loved one so they don’t have to worry.”

Not everyone is cut out to do the work that Parker and Schneider perform, Antonucci says.

Before they begin their service, volunteers must go through 15 hours of orientation that involves guest speakers, background checks and experiencing the various areas where they can volunteer.

“Our volunteers are trained to listen first and then to engage with the patient where the patient wants to be, whatever the patient might be interested in,” Antonucci says.

The most common reason people drop out of the program is the time commitment required.

“It becomes a time issue and making sure you have time for yourself as well. That’s one of the things they tell you as a volunteer: Make sure you make time for yourself so you are mentally and physically able to keep up,” Schneider relates. “It is draining, going in and trying to help people and keeping [the patients] going.”

A certain level of comfort is required to be an effective volunteer, for both the family and the volunteer himself.

“When I started doing home visitation, I felt comfortable because I had a background in education and working with families,” says Schneider, a retired teacher. “A lot of the volunteers have been through a death, so they know what hospice gave to them and they want to give back. Some people volunteer and find they can’t do it.”

On the family’s side, they need to be comfortable admitting into their home a volunteer they just met at the door. In her experience, Parker says, some families have no qualms, happy for the brief respite.

“[A mother] had two children that had the same disease, but she’s licensed so she was taking care of both of her daughters,” Parker says. “As with any person, you have to get used to having them in your home. The first time I went in and met them, she was so comfortable with me. She went and rested upstairs. By the second time, she left her home. She was that comfortable with me being there in her home.”

There’s no doubt the volunteers love what they do. In dealing with sick patients, tired families and death – if a volunteer is on the vigil team – they have to. What they get in return can’t be measured, Antonucci says.

“The volunteers truly get a paycheck of the heart. They value what they do. They get so much feedback from the patient and the families and they do it because they truly want to do it,” she says.

For Schneider, volunteering is almost an extension of her teaching career.

“It’s the self-satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping others. I tried to do that when I taught. And when I retired, I just wanted to do a little bit of giving back,” she says.

For Parker, volunteering over the past four years has been “entirely positive,” even if she doesn’t get to patients as quickly as she’d like.

“There hasn’t been any time that it’s been for the worse because I enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy going out and sitting with patients at night, knowing that if they’re dying, then they’re not dying alone,” she comments. “I know that I’m giving comfort to the family.”

Pictured: Rosemary Antonucci, manager of volunteer services, says not everyone is cut out to be a hospice volunteer.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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