Archive for the ‘Volunteers’ Category

An article I wrote was just published on a wonderful site called KevinMD. Here’s the link:


As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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How do we keep volunteers happy? At the core of that question is a bigger issue for non-profit organizations that are increasingly relying on volunteers to perform a range of essential functions: how do we keep volunteers volunteering?

Today I ran across a series of articles online and I thought I’d share the link before offering a few thoughts of my own.


This week I applied to volunteer to read with primary students with the local Board of Education. My experience offered some lessons in how to encourage would-be volunteers. First, I completed the on-line application, indicating my background, education, volunteer experience, and reasons why I want to volunteer. As I typed in my degrees, experience as a primary school teacher, and long history as a volunteer, I wondered what the reviewers might think. Overqualified? Embellishing? I added the names of two referees (one of whom could be related, the form said), including a dear hospice friend and my eldest daughter, whose wonderful children I now joyfully care for on a regular basis.

Within five minutes of submitting the form, I received a phone call from someone at the organization in charge of volunteers. We had a lovely conversation about reading, my experiences, and my hopes for volunteering. When I indicated that I didn’t want to volunteer in my own neighbourhood (they don’t need me here, I explained), she was pleasantly surprised to say the least, and suggested a number of inner city school that might work for me.

Next step was to apply for my police record check. Although I’ve completed at least two of these during my volunteer history, an up-to-date record is required for each new volunteer, so I headed off to the police records station to complete my application. The waiting room was full with every chair taken when I arrived and dutifully took my number. Only 22 people ahead of me apparently in the A list of applicants. By the time my number was called, the room had nearly emptied, and I expectantly approached the wicket to submit my forms.

“There’s a wait of 6 to 8 weeks,” the person at the wicket informed me.

“There must be a lot of people wanting to volunteer!” I replied, a little shocked.

Of course, people also need a record check for internships, co-op placements, and jobs with vulnerable populations. Still I am sure there are many new volunteers at this time of year, as people make their post-summer plans. I felt happy to be taking part in the process shared my so many of my fellow Canadians.

Assuming all goes well, come October I’ll be happily spending an hour or two each week, introducing the joy of reading to some new little friends. I’ll keep you posted!

As a post-script, when I told my 5 year old granddaughter that I was applying to be a volunteer reader, she looked very sad. “But then you won’t be seeing me on Wednesdays any more!” I assured her that I would never give up our Wednesday library and dinner visits. “I just love reading so much, I want to share it with other little kids.” She seemed reassured, especially after I read her all 6 Spot books in our collection.






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I’m finally back at my desk, after nearly a month in Provincetown where I’ve been writing, reading, walking, and pondering up a storm. My favourite activities – along with eating fabulous fresh seafood, meeting people from all over the world and talking about the things that matter to them. Provincetown seems to encourage both introspection and an ability to dream that makes for amazing conversations and I miss those whenever I come back home.

Lots happened while I was away. Medical Aid in Dying became the law of the land in Canada, after some back-and-forthing between the House of Commons and the Senate. Forty-nine people were murdered in a gay club in Orlando – an event that I have written and thought about a great deal in the weeks since. Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party and his hateful rhetoric filled the airwaves in deeply disturbing ways. Britain voted to leave the European Union (an even that was decidedly interesting from south of the border as Americans tried to make sense of the impact of Brexit would be on them). The President of the United States visited Ottawa while I was south of the border as well – with scarcely a mention in the US press.

And finally, I turn my attention to hospice volunteering following my first shift in nearly a month. As I have written many times, each time I return after an absence I am reminded of the importance of having a “beginner’s mind.” Indeed, I am forced to remember because I know none of the residents who are at the hospice. Thus, I can’t fall into the trap of thinking that I know what they will be eating, how they will be feeling, who will be visiting and so on. I have to approach each person with fresh eyes and an open mind. And in so doing, I am able to be fully present with each one.

I’ll admit that I find it tiring, both mentally and emotionally, as I try to keep track of the new (to me) patients and their family members, while allowing myself to feel fully the circumstances they are in. The sadness, the loss, the impending deaths of mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons. These are not my losses, of course, but they affect me, perhaps more so because I have been away.

And so, once again, I find myself wondering how we take care of ourselves and support one another in the face of so much loss and sadness. I don’t want to suggest that I am overwhelmed by my volunteering – I’m not. Over the years I’ve been at hospice, I have developed many mechanisms to help me. I write, I spend time alone to let the feelings sink in, I walk by the river, sometimes I talk (in extreme generalities of course) about what I’ve experienced.

Next week when I return to hospice, it is likely that two or three people I’ve met this week will have died. And while I go about getting to know the new people – and getting their lunch and helping to reposition them, and bringing them ice chips – I will silently bow to the ones who have died and honour their memory.

How do we support one another in this amazing and rewarding work that we do? It has always been my hope that this blog can serve that role in some small way – by letting other volunteers know that they are not alone in their experiences. For those of us who work in residential hospices, debriefing with your “replacement” at the end of your shift can be helpful. I will often take the time to check in with the receptionist on the front desk to see how she’s doing, and to tell her how much I appreciate the essential role she plays.

I’d love to hear from others about how they support themselves and their fellow volunteers. Meanwhile, I just want to bow to all of the volunteers who are reading this blog (I am a Buddhist, after all) for the wonderful work that they do.




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In the past few weeks, I have sat with a number of patients as they were dying. As a hospice volunteer, one of my most important roles is to be with people nearing the end of their lives to ensure that no one dies alone. The experience is humbling, deeply moving, and a poignant reminder of the circle of life. Each time I watch someone take their last breath, I am struck by the mystery of life and death – breath and finally no breath. Ever again.

I don’t know who I would be today if I had not cared for my sister when she was dying. If I had not sat with her as she took her last breath, I doubt I would now have the wisdom and equanimity to sit with dying people today. If I had not cared for my sister, I might still be pretending that I could somehow avoid dying – both myself and the people I love. I might still be racing from meeting to meeting, barely stopping to notice what was happening right in front of me. I might still be steering a wide berth around people who had lost someone close to them, lest I somehow “catch” death myself.

These days, I spend time following the debates in the House of Commons on what is now termed Medical Aid in Dying. Whatever happens in the Senate in the coming days, Bill C-14 will soon be the law of the land. People will be able to request and receive medical aid in dying.

Yet, the fact is that people have been receiving medical aid in dying for centuries. Medications have helped to ease pain and suffering and to reduce the symptoms that are part of the dying process. In that past few decades, hospice palliative care has made enormous strides in easing such suffering. New drugs and treatments, the practice of titrating the dosage so that the patient can live pain-free and alert for as long as possible – all of these methods are form of medical aid in dying. The presence of compassionate and caring staff and volunteers might be termed non-medical aid in dying. We accompany and help people in this final passage in life.

When I sit with a patient who is dying, when I see a family surrounding their beloved parent, I feel that I am part of the mystery and the miracle of life. Like the births I have witnessed and experienced, these deaths too are an integral part of life.

I hope that, whatever form the final legislation takes, we do not lose sight of these fundamental truths.




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Somehow the month of April seems to be have raced by. For me, it was filled with speaking engagements (Colonel By Residence in Ottawa; Hot Talks on Health in Toronto) and planning for upcoming talks at the Good Companions Centre this week and in Lindsay and Fenelon Falls next week. It’s been exciting and energizing and a little exhausting (I am an introvert, after all!) and I’ve missing having the time and space to write and blog since my return from Virginia. I’ve made some great connections and met some amazing caregivers and volunteers and heard about the wonderful work being done by Carers UK. And now, here it is, May 2nd, and the start of Hospice Palliative Care week.

Yesterday was the Annual Hike for Hospice – I’ve attended all but one since I started volunteering at hospice in 2001. It’s always a great time to meet fellow volunteers, family members we’ve helped at hospice, and supporters of hospice palliative care. Hopefully – despite the dark skies and rain – we were able to raise much needed funds to continue our work at Hospice Care Ottawa.

I love talking about the work we do at the hospice (can you tell?) and I seem to find a way to insert hospice care into every talk I give, even if it’s not explicitly about hospice care! In these days when so much media attention is focused on physician assisted dying, I feel it’s vitally important to dispel some of the myths about palliative care and to tell people what hospice palliative care is all about.

Most people have never stepped inside a hospice. No doubt they have many fears and misconceptions about hospice care.

Some people think that hospice care hastens death.In fact, hospice care enables people to live their final days or weeks without pain (in most cases) and with dignity. Research suggests that hospice care can enable people to live longer once their pain and symptoms are successfully managed.

Many imagine that a hospice is a dreary place devoid of laughter or celebration. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked the question: “Don’t you find it depressing volunteering in hospice?” I tell them that yes, there is sadness at the end of life, but there is also joy and celebration. I have seen high school graduations, wedding and birthday and anniversary celebrations – even a visit from a brand new great grandchild – in my years at hospice.

Hospice palliative care enables people to live fully until the end of their lives. For those of us who are privileged to work in hospice care, we find inspiration and meaning and a reminder of the things that really matter in life – human connection, love, caring, dignity.

I am honoured to be a hospice volunteer. I know that many readers of this blog share that honour with me. Let’s take this week to tell others about the gifts of hospice care. Share this blog with them. Share your story with them. Encourage them to get involved, whether it’s helping to raise money, or volunteering as a driver for day hospice, or telling their elected officials of the need to provide sustainable funding for end of live care.

Let’s spread the word about hospice palliative care – this week – and throughout the year!

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I first wrote this post at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. It’s a year later now, and I am back in Virginia, writing about caregiving, end of life issues, and – yes – dignity.

Much has changed in the past year. We elected a new government – one that is committed to working with the provinces, to reforming health care, to providing more palliative care and support for caregivers in the home.

At the provincial level (I live in Ontario), we’ve seen a commitment to build up to 20 new residential hospices, to provide additional funds for existing hospices, and to increase support for caregivers. These are important initiatives and I look forward to seeing them implemented.

At the same time, however, there has been very little discussion about what hospice palliative care is – what it looks like, what it means for families and for patients who are reaching the end of their lives. There has been little discussion about what we want and need at the end of our own lives.

I hope that readers of this blog will take up the call to talk with your friends and family, your neighbours and workmates, about the kind of care we need and deserve. I hope you will talk about dignity and what it means to provide loving, respectful, dignified care for the people you love. These issues go to the very heart of what it means to be human. Please join me in this vital conversation.

Hospice Volunteering

I’ve been thinking (and writing) a lot about dignity in the past couple of weeks – what it means and how the notion of dignity has been largely appropriated by the “right to die” movement. Organizations with names like “Dying with Dignity” and “Compassion and Choices” seem to suggest that the only dignified way to die is with the assistance of a physician (whether through lethal injection or the provision of a lethal dose of medication).

Yet, dignity and compassion have been core values of the hospice movement since Cicely Saunders opened the first modern hospice in 1967 and remain central to our work in hospice palliative care today. Compassion lies at the heart of how we deal with patients and their families. And the preservation of a patient’s dignity, integrity, and respect are central to how we care for each person who enters the hospice program, whether in their…

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Despite my best intentions, I didn’t manage to post anything new in December. Lest you think I was lost in a shopping mall or drowning my sorrows in red wine, I can assure you I was enjoying my favourite pastimes – a trip on a train with my partner, daughter, and granddaughter to see a friend’s photo show in Toronto (and visit the aquarium with my younger daughter and her partner); precious time with friends;  a drum-making workshop wherein I actually managed to make a real drum; Tuesday afternoons at the hospice; being silly with my grandchildren; watching non-seasonal programs on Netflix; completing an end-of year reflection.

I suspect this brand new year will see me engaged in many of the same activities – and hopefully some I’ve never undertaken before. Passing that magic marker of 65 seems to have given me permission to be as zany and silly and experimental as I want (although my granddaughter regularly chastises me with “Don’t be silly Granny!”) I can talk with strangers at Starbucks and on the street, without fearing that my daughters will accuse me of “over-sharing.” I can sing as often and as loudly as I wish in my house – accompanied by my ukulele if I want! And of course, when the spirit moves me, I can write.

I’m hoping to write regularly again, having spend the past few months marketing my book. In this new year, I want to continue to give talks on caregiving, aging, death, and dying – and hopefully to travel with the book. But I’ll also return to my desk on a more regular basis, to blog, to write articles on subjects close to my heart, and, perhaps, to work on another book.

I hope that the new year brings much joy, caring, and compassion to all of you. I look forward to connecting with you in 2016.



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