Hospice House: a project of love

I have written about Hospice House ever since it was only a good idea more than 20 years ago. There were times when I wondered if the good people in the society could keep the vision alive and then the times when I was heartened at the generosity of the community which kept it all going.

Hospice House volunteers

Hospice House volunteers

I have written about Hospice House ever since it was only a good idea more than 20 years ago. There were times when I wondered if the good people in the society could keep the vision alive and then the times when I was heartened at the generosity of the community which kept it all going.

Volunteers have always been a vital part of all of the North Okanagan Hospice Society’s services at the house and in the community. There are many faithful volunteers and the need for volunteers increases, especially since the house was enlarged to 12 palliative care beds, and more palliative care is being provided to people in their homes.

I shadowed three volunteers on the three-hour-long dinner shift recently to learn more about what they do.

Sue Brandle, who has been a volunteer for two-and-a-half years, was the first to arrive. She stopped to chat with a family member of one of the residents then went on to her first task — to check the residents’ dietary chart while the cook finished off dinner before leaving. The chart gives the details of what each patient should eat and their likes and dislikes. There is also a book that tells what each patient has eaten during the day.

“If they haven’t eaten much, we encourage them or offer something else. Sometimes they need to be fed or just have someone sit with them while they eat,” said Sue B.

She and the cook are happy to recall a wedding at the house and that the newly-wed spouse who had been in Hospice House is now at home and doing well.

The dining room with garden views on two sides is set for whoever wants to come from their rooms to eat, with soft lighting and music in the background. It’s so pleasant that a former resident, who did not fully understand where he was, was known to wonder why such a nice restaurant with such good food did not get more customers.

Sue Winzerling, who took the volunteer training last fall, arrives and starts to prepare trays to take to residents who will eat dinner in their rooms.

Sue B. checks the book at the nurses’ station when she arrives. The book records each residents’ medical information, their interests, abilities for self care and if they are there for respite or permanent. A touching note: one resident would like visitors to offer to read the Bible to him.

“You know that people are hurting, the residents and their families. It’s all about love, just love and kindness. If people seem to want to build a relationship with me, I do that, it’s a project of love,” said Sue B.

“Once people are here, it’s about having a peaceful heart, not what anyone has accomplished. We are all connected here on earth.”

Back in the dining room, she says to a resident who is waiting for dinner, “Why don’t we just close these blinds so you don’t get a draft on your back.”

Sue W. asks another resident, “Are you hungry today?” and smiles at the response, “Yes, a little, thank you, darling.”

Meals are important at the house. Each resident makes choices for the three meals, including full breakfasts. Every effort is made to accommodate special cravings.

Sue B. gets hot chocolate for someone while Sue W. tries to tempt a resident with some soup. They continue to prepare and deliver trays to the rooms.

I went with Sue B. while she delivered a tray to a resident who was wearing a T-shirt with a vintage car on it saying the year of the car and presumably that of the wearer as well. It was the same vintage as I am. I could be a resident here now, any of us or our families could be here. One door has letters that look like they were made by a child, with the word Opa. It’s the members of our community who are here, somebody’s Opa, Granny, sister, husband, wife, best friend. Don’t ask why Hospice House is important. You know the answer.

Clemance Bedard, who has volunteered for four years, comes in from her work as a financial consultant and gets updated, pleased to hear that one of the residents is going to go home soon. She gets a tray ready.

“When they don’t order much I put a little extra, just in case. Is there another tray I can take?” she asks the others. The three volunteers communicate easily and help each other as well as the residents. If they weren’t there the staff members, nurses and care aides, would have to serve dinner as well as do their own work which includes dispensing medications, giving medical attention and getting the residents ready for the night. Volunteers also prepare and serve breakfast.

“We need more volunteers. If there are more, then we can spend more time with the residents for companionship. The volunteers help the professional staff with their observations of how the residents are doing. Look at the chart, where it is dark that means that there is no volunteer for that time. It is especially short of volunteers on the weekends,” said Clemence. “The atmosphere is not what some people expect. I have to remind myself that these people are here to die and that they know it. It calms me down to come here. There’s a soothing effect.”

I follow her as she takes some fresh water to a resident and coaxes her to have a little more dessert. She collects some medicine order forms to prepare. “This is a way we can help the nurses have more time for their work.”

A nurse asks Clemence to bring a tray to someone who is now awake and hungry.

“I can’t tell you how much it helps us to have the volunteers here,” the nurse tells me.

Sue B. recalls how it was difficult to come in for her first shift even though she really wanted to volunteer.

“I used to have anxiety attacks but helping and giving has stopped my anxiety attacks and I haven’t had one since. You get so much more than you give here,” she said.

Sue W. spends extra time with a resident who needed encouragement to eat. As she leans toward the resident with a spoon of chocolate pudding, gentle and patient, she was a picture that I couldn’t take but one I will never forget.

“You get to know the residents and what they like and when you remember it, they feel special,” she said as she brought the tray back to the kitchen. “Often people want to talk about years ago and you hear such interesting things about their childhood.”

The volunteers check to make sure that everyone has eaten, that the records are updated and the kitchen is clean. They make sure that there are snacks and beverages ready if anyone wants anything in the night.

They agree that the training they received was excellent and that it included learning about all aspects of the house, followed by shadowing nurses and care aides and then a mentor who was an experienced volunteer.

Sue W. takes a moment to look around the kitchen and dining room. “It is lovely to volunteer here. It’s lighthearted. I think the residents want things to be as normal as possible with talking and laughter. It’s supposed to be a home away from home where you can live your life right up to the last moment. I’m going to go and see how Nora (not her real name) is doing now. She might be awake and want to chat a little. It means so much when you can do some little thing for someone and see the look on their face and hear them say, ‘thank you.’”

The day shift volunteers visit with residents, do nails, read, play games or take the residents out to smoke or into the garden in good weather. Some volunteers come to sit in a vigil with residents when they are near death so that no one has to die alone.

Volunteers do not have to work directly with residents if they don’t want to. There is lots to do with shopping, working in the kitchen, in the garden and in the office or on fundraising projects.

The next volunteer training session is April 4- 15, weekday mornings. People are advised to apply early, now that criminal record checks can take longer. To register for training call Rylan Sandberg, coordinator of volunteer services, at 250-503-1800 or e-mail rylan@nohs.ca or see www.nohs.ca.