Posts Tagged ‘volunteers’


Here’s a link to an Australia report on a program where volunteers help terminally ill people to write their life stories. I would love to be part of such a program!

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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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When I was first training to be a hospice volunteer (in 2001), one of the most important lessons the leaders drummed into us was the centrality of boundaries. We were reminded repeatedly that we were not a family member, a close friend, or even a not-so-close friend of the residents. In short, we were not in the “inner circle.” That space was reserved for those who were closest to the person who was dying, be they family of origin, by marriage, or by choice. As death grew nearer, we were to maintain a distance, making room for those in the inner circle to spend time with the resident before they died.

I had no problem with this lesson, since I had struggled with boundary issues when my sister was dying and a woman we had hired to assist with her care started to feel that she was as close to Carol (or perhaps even closer!) than we were.

We were also repeatedly instructed about confidentiality and never speaking about what happens in hospice with other people. What wee weren’t really prepared for is how to be when we know one of the people who is admitted to the residence.

As someone who lives in the same neighbourhood as the hospice where I volunteer, it’s perhaps inevitable that people will be admitted with whom I am familiar, whether as neighbours, colleagues, or local activists. When that has happened, I’ve made a mental note in my mind, mostly by way of acknowledging the sorrow and loss they must be facing. I make a point of not indicating I’m familiar with them, out of respect for their privacy and the tremendously challenging circumstances they are facing. I hold them in my heart, and continue with my work both inside and outside of hospice.

A while ago, a woman was admitted with whom I had more than a passing acquaintance. We had been colleagues once upon a time, members of the same neighbourhood, and friends of friends. I was saddened to see that she had been admitted and wondered how I should be. Should I avoid her room as much as possible out of respect to her privacy? Or should I go and greet her and help make her feel welcome?

I chose the latter option, as I knew in my heart it was the right one. I knocked on her door, came to the side of her bed, and said something like, “I’m sorry to see you here – though I’m glad you can be here.” She asked how long I had been volunteering and I told her. And she told me what a wonderful place it was. We spoke for perhaps five minutes, then I left her to rest while her family went to lunch.

For the rest of my shift, family and friends visited her, and I steered clear except to respond to the call bell.

The following week, as so often happens when someone decides to come to hospice, she was much weaker, and a note in the book indicated that only wanted to see her family. Despite my desire to go in and say hello, to offer my “expertise” or “wisdom,” I knew that was much more for my own needs than hers and I resisted.

This is often the litmus test for me when I am facing such a decision at hospice. I ask myself this question: “Are you going to see the resident (or say this brilliant thing) because it will support or help them? Or are you doing it because of a need of your own? To feel helpful and needed. To be validated in some way. To feel connected.”

I really do ponder those questions before going to a room or saying or doing something, especially as a patient nears death. Most of the time, the answer is that I can be of service to the patient, whether by sitting at the bedside when they are alone or singing songs or reading the Bible (or poems or any book that’s evident in their room). And I can feel certain that I am not breaching any boundaries and getting myself “in trouble.”

It’s inevitable that we will meet people we know in the hospice work that we do. Indeed, in rural hospices and small communities, it is unavoidable. The important thing is not that we avoid people we know or pretend we don’t know them. Rather it is respecting the honour and privilege we have been given in being able to accompany people when they are dying. Sometimes that means doing the dishes or making up beds or getting more ice to make ice chips. And sometimes it means making space for family members (supporting them if we can) and respecting their time with the person they love.

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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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Last Fall, following my paper at the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association Conference, I was approached by a woman from Hub Hospice (Almonte).

“Would you be willing to come and talk to our Annual General Meeting next Spring?”

“Sure,” I said, always eager to sing the praises of hospice volunteers (and talk about the challenges we face).

May 1st finally rolled around, and out I drove to Almonte, a lovely town less than an hour’s drive from Ottawa.

As I explained to the amusement of the audience, though, “I’m from Toronto. I moved to Ottawa for work – and it seems small! Everywhere else is just out there somewhere.”

They laughed, admitting later that they make it to Ottawa about as often as I make it along Highway 17.

After the business of the AGM was taken care of and brief remarks from the CEO of the local hospital, it was my turn to talk. The group was larger than I might have expected, with all the Board Members, several of the volunteers, and a range of community members – all eager to hear about the experiences of other hospice volunteers.

After my talk, it was time for questions and discussions. I was hugely impressed by the depth and range of the questions. Soon we were sharing stories, challenges, and successes. I told them how impressed I was by what they have accomplished in such a short span of time. In addition to very successful fund-raising rising drives, they’ve developed a home support program, as well as bereavement and grief services. In all the activities they undertake, they also see themselves as ambassadors for the work of hospice palliative care and the importance of beginning the conversations about death and dying.

The evening ended with cookies and squares and conversation on a less formal basis. It was great to meet more people from the hospice and the community and to talk about the work they’ve been doing. I loved the spirit and the energy of the group – and came home determined to share this story with this (virtual) community.

Thanks so much to the Hub Hospice group for inviting me!



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I’m finally beginning to sort through the stacks and stacks of papers and materials I collected before and during the CHPCA conference. And after a few days of diligently sifting through the detritus in my study, I am happy to report that I can see the floor AND my desk once again! The older I get, the more my “random” my writing process seems to become. I start with an idea of what I want to say (whether in an article, a talk, or a blog post) and for the most part I just start writing.

Over the course of writing the paper for the conference, I changed focus, my material, my examples, my argument, and even the title of the paper! All this by writing and writing and writing (and reading and editing and revising). It’s not time efficient, that’s for sure, and it makes for a lot of recycled pages and a big mess. And it meant I was writing and revising right down to the wire this time. But I got clearer and clearer about what I wanted to say in my brief “20 minutes of fame.)

I was slotted into a one hour time slot with two other presenters, each of us assigned 20 minutes for the paper and any questions. Far too short, given the size of the audience and the amount of interest people showed. Luckily several people came up to me (and my fellow presenters, Stephen and Jane Claxton-Oldfield, wonderful researchers and colleagues from Sackville New Brunswick) and we were able to carry on our discussions out in the hall following the session.

I entitled my paper “The canary in the coal mine.” I argued that volunteers can serve as the canaries in this process of hospice amalgamation and integration we are currently witnessing. If volunteers are unhappy, if they are leaving their volunteer work or failing to attend meetings or events, if fewer people are signing up for training or failing to take on shifts after their training is over, we need to pay attention. We can simply ignore these phenomena, concluding that they weren’t cut out for hospice work, or that they didn’t know what they were getting into, or that it was time for a change. And of course, in some instances, those conclusions will be accurate. But if volunteer (and staff) dissatisfaction is widespread, we need to be willing to ask why. And to be willing to make necessary changes.

Hospice volunteering is hugely rewarding work. And it is also emotionally challenging and sometimes very sad. For the past few weeks, at least one person has died during my 4 hour shift, and each week 3 or 4 or more people have died. Though that is of course in the nature of the work we do – people come to hospice to die – still we are touched by these people that we serve, especially if they have been with us for several weeks or even months.

Volunteers develop their own ways to deal with the loss and sadness we witness and experience. And by and large the rewards of volunteering far outweigh the difficulties. It is a privilege to be with people in their final days, and to serve dying people and their families. But if volunteers start to feel taken for granted, if they are spending all their time in “busy work” with little time for time at the bedside, they may begin to question the value of their work. And if large numbers of volunteers start to do that, the hospice faces a serious problem.

Most volunteers are more than willing to put up with the inevitable bumps that change involves. But if they don’t understand why the changes are happening, if they feel that they are left out of the loop, or that their perspectives don’t matter, they may begin to vote with their feet.

As person after person identified at the conference, hospice palliative care is at a crucial juncture in this country and indeed throughout the world. We will need many more hospice beds and home support services (including in long-term care facilities) and day hospice programs and hospital palliative care units to meet the needs of the rapidly growing aging population. Volunteers are an essential resource in all of those services. We need to listen to their concerns and find new ways to support them in their work.

(That’s a brief summary of the paper I presented. I was thrilled to see so many people in attendance, and to have a chance to exchange stories with volunteers and volunteer coordinators after the session. For an introvert like me, conferences are VERY tiring, and I definitely needed lots of “alone time” after it was done! But I think I’ve recovered now!)

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This week was particularly intense at hospice, with four residents dying within a very short span of time. Although we know, of course, that virtually every patient who enters the residence will die, still the sadness and suffering that we witness (and feel) can take us by surprise, and, occasionally, overwhelm us.

I was grateful this week that I had woken up feeling very sad (for no apparent reason) on the morning of my hospice shift. Rather than trying to deny it or push it away, I let it be, trusting that something was there, and that it would eventually pass. Whatever it was – whether prescience about my hospice shift or memories – my sadness served me well on my shift, as it opened my heart to the suffering I would encounter. Buddhist teachers say, if we can simply “be” with whatever emotion we are experiencing – especially sadness and grief – we approach the world and our own experiences with an open heart, because we too are vulnerable.

That was certainly the case on Tuesday on my shift. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the news of the death of one of our long-term residents, or by the suffering of those around me, I knew what I needed to do. To sit beside a woman who was alone and dying – to place my hand lightly on her shoulder, to tell her over and over that everything was OK, everyone was going to be OK, and to sing. I love to sing – lullabies, hymns I learned as a child, love songs – and I have a low, soothing voice. So, as she lay dying, in between reassurances, I sang.

There’s more I could say about that day, but I don’t want to breach the sacred responsibility to confidentiality we have as those privileged to accompany the dying. Suffice it to say, I left the hospice after  my shift feeling calm, a little sad, and filled with wonder at this mystery of life and death.

PS: I  wanted to share a link to an article that I just saw on Huffington Post. I don’t know how to attach it so you can just read it here – so here’s the link. It speaks to what we do at hospice and what we can share with family members.


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