This one is especially close to my heart because of the community response to meeting Wayne’s needs during cancer treatment as well as his time in hospice care. There were countless volunteers helping with shopping, cleaning, meal prep, driving to appointments, and social support. These kind acts were in addition to practitioners offering pro bono Reiki, Jin Shin Jyutsu, hypnotherapy, massage, and other wholistic treatments. The volunteers made this difficult time into a grace-filled time. Volunteering or lending a helping hand on any level, or for any worthy cause contributes to a much-needed culture of kindness. For so many reasons, in the A,B,C’s for living well, “V” is for Volunteering.
In our country, the number of volunteer hours given in any year is impressive. Even during the height of the pandemic people were willing to lend many helping hands. AmeriCorps research reports that during the pandemic volunteering as part of an organization, dropped from 30% in 2019 to 23% in 2021. However, a noteworthy 51% participated in informal helping activities such as helping a neighbor with chores or yard work, reading stories to a vision-impaired friend, sewing masks to donate to anyone in need, running errands for, or delivering food to homebound friends. That translates into 124.7 million helpful people during a time when “being out there” was a challenge.
There are so many ways to lend our energy to the greater good. When we think about volunteering, the first things that may come to mind are doing so at a soup kitchen, animal shelter, or as part of a roadside clean-up. But there are lots of other options for willing volunteers! It can happen via an established organization, foundation, or charity. Do a bit of research in your own community. Homeless shelters, hospitals, hospices, community centers or gardens, parks, senior living facilities, libraries, museums, and theaters are some examples of places that may need volunteers.
Informal helping activities can improve quality of life, provide support, or lessen a burden for friends, neighbors, family members, and others. Some examples of these are helping to chaperone a teen gathering, coaching elders to use a laptop, organizing a neighborhood potluck, teaching a grandchild how to knit, or helping a family move to their new home. What are some ways you lend a helping hand to contribute to a culture of kindness?
To get started thinking about volunteering, assess your skills and your passion for helping others. Consider the following to help you decide where and how you might like to volunteer.
- Do you love to garden; or have a passion for recycling, history, poetry, hiking, music, art, politics, or math?
- Are you a horse whisperer, dog or cat lover; fond of prairie dogs, feral cats, or endangered birds?
- Do you enjoy socializing with others, or do you prefer solitude?
- Are you interested in sharing your time with youth, elders, veterans, special needs populations, wildlife preservation, environmental, or ecological groups?
- What are your strengths (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) and how can those strengths help others as you volunteer?
- Realistically, how much time do you have to offer?
The benefits to volunteering are numerous! One of the most obvious is the opportunity to make an individual contribution to the greater good. This act of generosity results in the increase of your happiness hormones (serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins). Volunteering also helps boost self-confidence, improves mental and physical health, and offers an opportunity for social interactions that can result in new or deepening relationships and a stronger sense of community.
This brings us to hospice volunteering. As mentioned earlier in this post, when Wayne was in need, volunteers poured forth! When he entered hospice, there were many friends and family members wanting to help. Given that this was our first time as hospice caregivers, we embarked on a crash course to learn how to provide appropriate care, while holding space for his final moment. It was not an easy time for any of us. Yet, we were gently guided by the hospice team, and for this I am forever grateful.
We learned during the crash course that hospice carries a philosophy supportive of patients living as well as they can during their final days. Hospice teams do everything in their power to preserve dignity, comfort, and grace for their patients, as well as providing support and education for family and friend caregivers. This experience sparked Further Shore’s birth and mission and has underscored my work for the past two decades. It has not only been profoundly humbling, but the ultimate privilege to serve at the bedside for many dear ones. I feel that I can say “dear ones” because whether I knew them or not when I entered their care circle, they became dear to me through our shared time together.
If you feel well-suited for hospice volunteering, you will need to inquire about the hospice volunteer training programs offered in your community. Since hospice is a Medicare funded program, all certified hospices are mandated to recruit, train, and utilize volunteers. Sharing precious time with someone facing the ultimate transition can be deeply rewarding for both patient and volunteer. Hospice volunteers often also participate in support for the primary caregivers, friends, and family members surrounding their loved one in transition. Embarking on hospice training will also provide insight into what to expect if you are called to support a family member or friend needing that service.
One way to learn more is through Further Shore’s Bridging the Gap training program, now available on request. The program offers several special considerations and pointers for hospice volunteers. First and foremost is to be genuine in your desire to provide companionship, listening, and support. Once committed and trained at your local hospice, agree only to what feels do-able in your own life and schedule. Be aware of and take responsibility for your own feelings about the patient’s condition. Establish comfortable boundaries around parameters for your volunteer service. In addition to patient support, you may want to offer some of your time and talent to family caregivers. Once clear about what works well for you, arrange for your visit with the patient and/or their caregivers. Be dependable and be punctual. You may be the highlight of the patient’s day, so if running late, please let them know with a phone call or text. The following is a partial list of Further Shore volunteer tips.
When supporting a patient or loved one in transition DO:
- Dress appropriately and have good personal hygiene when visiting
- Ask if it is ok to hug or touch (not everyone is)
- Ask questions of patient, family or team if unsure about some aspect of the care plan
- Meet patients where they are (emotionally), follow their lead for quiet or conversation
- Listen with care; speak with compassion and kindness
- Be alert and aware of patient changes in demeanor or care needs
- Uphold respectful confidentiality, but report abnormal behavior or changes to the care team
- Know your resources; who do you to turn to if you need support?
- Participate in special activities or creative projects with patients or care team
- Read to patients; hold patient hands; assist patient with eating or drinking
- Offer companion animal care; light housekeeping support; errands or meal preparation
When supporting a patient or loved one in transition DON’T:
- Promise what you cannot deliver in terms of time or activity
- Make visits when you are ill or in an emotionally challenged place
- Assume that your presence is more or less important than anyone else in the team
- Wear perfume or aftershave (some patients are very sensitive to smells)
- Offer food or drink to the patient without knowing their dietary restrictions
- Stay in a volunteer capacity with a patient if you feel you are ‘in over your head’ emotionally or suffering from compassion fatigue or volunteer burn out.
- Discuss religion, afterlife or death unless the patient initiates that. If asked your opinion, use your best intuition in reply. Ask first what THEY think or feel about those topics.
- Assume the patient is religious or spiritual. Many people are secular, atheist, stoic, agnostic, or do not ascribe to a particular religion.
- Try to impress your religious, spiritual, or altruistic values or attempt to ‘fix’ ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ the patient
- Attempt to influence the patient about their medical or end-of-life choices
- Manage, prescribe, or administer drugs or offer medical advice; handle syringes, IV’s or other medical equipment.
Do investigate your local hospice training if you feel ready to volunteer in that way. If not hospice volunteering, there are many other ways to lend a helping hand and volunteer. If you have some time to spare and want to boost those happiness hormones, do think about volunteering in some way to contribute to the greater good and a culture of kindness. Meanwhile, I offer my heartfelt gratitude to all volunteers and helpers everywhere for the good deeds being done in seen and unseen ways. You know who you are! May this kindness return to you again and again.