by Dr. Pat Hayes
Those of you who know me may have heard me talk about how important volunteers are to hospice. They provide crucial help to patients and their families, especially to family members who are in need of respite. Hospicare & Palliative Care Services, our hospice provider, offers patients and their families the chance to have trained volunteers visit them wherever they live, to offer companionship and a helping hand. Most often this means the visit happens in the patient’s own home, but it can also be in a nursing home or other care facility.
Recently I spoke with Pris Coulter about her experiences as a hospice volunteer in Cortland County. Pris has been a volunteer for ten years; she first started when Caring Community Hospice of Cortland was the county’s hospice provider, and she has continued volunteering with Hospicare. “I’ve visited patients in nursing homes and in their own homes and just chatted with them,” she says. “I’ve sat with patients who could not speak, and I’ve played cards with others.” Sometimes Pris’s visits to a patient coincide with their caregiver’s need to take a break. “I sat with a patient once while her husband went to the funeral home to make arrangements,” she says. “Then there was the patient who was able to be alone, but his wife needed me to take her to the grocery store because she couldn’t drive.”
In the last year, Pris has added a new dimension to her volunteering—helping with bereavement services. Once a month she goes to the Hospicare office in Ithaca to help with mailings to the families of deceased patients, and she reaches out to patient family members through quarterly phone calls for the first year after a death. “I check in with folks to see how they’re doing and to remind them of the bereavement services that are available, like one-on-one grief counseling with Hospicare counselors, or monthly bereavement meetings,” she says.
Pris is used to the surprised reactions when people find out she is a hospice volunteer. “The first thing out of their mouth is, “how can you do that?’” she says. “I explain that it’s truly rewarding to deal with folks who really have a need for your help. It’s an extremely good feeling to know you are wanted and you have a part in helping them through this difficult time. I’m providing something for them they can’t get anywhere else. That’s why I can do it.”
Pris is also quick to point out the benefits of utilizing Hospicare’s services as soon as a person is eligible for them. According to Medicare guidelines that is when a doctor has determined the patient has six months or less to live. The sooner a patient chooses hospice, the more they and their family members will be able to make use of all the services provided. “Hospicare makes things much more comfortable for the patient and family,” Pris says. “If you’re religious, they offer spiritual care services. If you need help with stress or emotional issues, they have counselors for that. They can provide help with logistical care problems. They have so much to tap into.”
Pris is aware that many people are afraid to be around the dying, but she says it’s not an issue for her. “I don’t know what people are afraid of,” she says. “Death is a part of life. It’s inevitable.”
If you’re interested in learning more about volunteering with Hospicare, call 607-272-0212 or visit the volunteer page of our website.
Pat Hayes, MD, is a retired physician from Cortland County. He serves on the board of directors for the Hospice Foundation of Cortland County and was the board president in 2015. He currently writes a monthly column with Jackie Swift on hospice for the Cortland Standard. This article first appeared in the March 11, 2017, issue of the Cortland Standard.