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Metro Detroit

March 4, 2013

Hospice seeks volunteers to help comfort patients

Volunteers can provide companionship to the ill or dying

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

METRO DETROIT — It may sound daunting, forming a bond with a dying patient to ease the end-of-life process, or providing companionship to someone struggling with a long-term physical or mental illness. 

But according to Kathleen Pennington, statewide director of community resources at Hospice of Michigan (HOM), such volunteers make a world of difference for patients and their caregivers — something fulfilling in its own right.

“I don’t even have a word to describe the difference they make,” Pennington said. “I’m constantly amazed what volunteers are willing to do for strangers.”

HOM is the largest hospice in the state. They often have a need for unpaid volunteers, and people can contact them at any time to find out how they can help.

Sometimes it’s through the hospice program proper, helping those who have been diagnosed with six months or fewer to live. But there is also the At Home Support Program, assisting individuals with long-term illnesses like dementia. 

Volunteers supplement the HOM staff of trained nurses, social workers, spiritual counselors and more, tending to patients wherever they’re located. 

There are many ways volunteers can help. They can assist with mobility, helping the patient move from their bed to their chair. They can assist with personal care, helping the patient wash up and get dressed. They can even do very light housekeeping — not like a full-fledged cleaning service, but simple chores like laundry and dishes.

But Pennington said the most important way a volunteer can contribute is by providing companionship, spending time with the patient talking about their week, watching TV, laughing and playing games.

This is not only a great comfort to the patient, but provides a break to the caregivers, as well.

Sandra Stockwell, of Belleville, has been volunteering with HOM for about a year and a half now. She was first exposed to hospice as a teenager, when her mother suffered a stroke and was in hospice at a nursing home. Whenever she and her siblings visited her mother, the other residents were happy to see them — something that was not lost on her.

“They were very lonely and hadn’t had a lot of visitors, so back then, when I was a teenager, I thought I’d want to do that at some time in the future, helping by just visiting with people,” Stockwell said.

“And it’s not as emotionally trying as you would think,” she said. “The first thing is, you’re volunteering for this, and you know the person is dying (or ill), and you don’t necessarily have that initial emotional connection. Your intention is to help this person, to serve them in whatever capacity they need. And really, when you go, they’re so happy to see you, which really puts you at ease right there, where you just want to help make their days better and brighter.”

Stockwell has dealt mainly with dying people, sometimes knowing them for half a year before they pass away.

“It’s really like going to see a grandparent — they’re still mentally active, able to speak to things, so it’s really the patients that make you feel at ease, and when they are in their final days, you feel a sense of accomplishment and pride that you made their last days easier, and you comforted them. While it’s still sad, you know this will happen to them whether you’re there or not, and you being there gave them a better quality of life because you chose to be a part of their life.”

Pennington said people like Stockwell are invaluable.

“We train them to prepare them for the task, but really they go into the home kind of blindly,” because it’s still a stranger, she said. “The volunteers don’t look for recognition. It’s phenomenal to me they give so selflessly.”

For more information about how to volunteer through Hospice of Michigan, call (248) 515-2387.