Hospice: Offering Quality of Life to the End of Life

Approximately 30 years ago, a U.S. volunteer movement began that would revolutionize health care. That quiet revolution, nowadays led by professional and medical teams, still depends on volunteers people like you and me to help the terminally ill reach the end of their lives peacefully, pain-free and with dignity, often at home among their loved ones.

Before the hospice movement took hold in the United States, terminal patients typically spent their last days in sterile, unfamiliar and uncomfortable hospitals. Hospice supporters successfully showed that families, with the help of professional and volunteer support, could care for their loved ones at home, enabling them to live out the final months of their lives in familiar surroundings with the people who mean the most to them.

Currently, thousands of nonprofit and for-profit hospice organizations work with individuals and families to provide medical, spiritual, emotional and family support. Hospice staff include medical practitioners, chaplains, counselors and therapists. Completing the picture are volunteers the lifeblood of any good hospice program.

"Volunteers are a huge part of the work we do," says Tana Sykes, public relations coordinator for Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"They are our lifesavers. They help feed, bathe and read to patients. They perform a wide variety of tasks, from acting as a companion to a patient going to lunch or coffee to offering families respite care and walking with them through the bereavement process."

Other suggested volunteer activities include music, massage, pet therapy or art therapy. Sykes adds that volunteers may also contribute in an administrative capacity, helping with office work.

You don't need medical training or a counseling degree to volunteer. All hospice groups require of their volunteers are compassion and a desire to help. Hospice staff will train you, then place you where you are most comfortable serving. And as a volunteer, you set your own hours.

If serving the dying sounds like a dismal, depressing ministry, consider this: Colorado Springs's newspaper, The Gazette, ranked Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care as the area's "best place to volunteer" in 2000. And hospice volunteers will tell you they reap incredible benefits from their work.

"You grow to love and care for patients and their families," Sykes says. "It's a profound and moving experience to walk with them at such an intimate time."

Interested in becoming involved in this crucial ministry? Contact your local hospice organization for more information on volunteer opportunities, or visit the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization's Web site for a listing of hospice organizations in your area.

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