We’ve all seen it happen. A crisis occurs, or a need is known and individuals get together donating time and money and more quickly than any program could be established the need is met or problem is solved. Committed volunteers have the ability to make incredible change.
Many don’t realize that it was volunteers who actually started the hospice movement we know today. In the 1970’s when the first organized hospices formed, there was no compensation within insurance companies for those services. For over a decade it was simply nurses, doctors, counselors, therapists and community members, etc who volunteered their time to care for dying patients and grieving families.
When the government decided to officially make hospice a part of the Medicare benefit in 1982, they didn’t want to take away the origins of volunteerism. To remedy this, Medicare mandated that 5% of all patient care hours provided by paid staff, must be volunteer hours. Simply put, for a 40 hour work week with 10 employees, the hospice must provide 20 hours a week of strictly volunteer time.
This mandate has essentially become one of the defining differences of hospice care. In communities like ours, it allows for a sense of ownership, as neighbors and church groups, businesses and organizations donate time to serve each other.
Hospice really couldn’t survive without volunteers. Those required hours are filled with administration duties, visits in patient’s homes, running errands, baking cookies and playing the guitar. It is the volunteers who serve as our creative wish fulfillers. I was recently with a patient dying of cancer who had wanted to finish a quilt for her children, however her strength was ebbing and I felt she would run out of time. With her permission, word was sent to our cadre of volunteers. Within a day we had set up a quilting bee at the hospice house, where she, her family and our volunteers all worked to finish the quilt.
There are no age limits for volunteers. I’ve known high school students who’ve donated time as a requirement for school, and been so transformed by their service that even once in college, they came back in the summers just to stay involved.
It is no secret that our culture avoids death. The avoidance can actually lead to a fear dying. Some volunteers give their time, simply to learn more about death. Having a chance to see first hand how hospice supports the patient physically, psychologically and spiritually becomes a relief and anxieties are abated.
The most effective use of volunteers is when an organization can match the skills and gifts of those donating their time to the needs of the organization itself. Because hospice care is essentially focused on helping people live life to its fullest, the needs are as broad and unique as humans themselves. I’ve never known a volunteer in hospice that we couldn’t use in some way.
Volunteerism in hospice is a perfect blend; Volunteers would tell you that by helping people in such a vulnerable time of life, their own lives are changed, and frankly, we wouldn’t exist without our volunteers.