One of the greatest gifts we can give to both our fellow human beings–and to ourselves–is to volunteer our time in service to others. Greek philosopher Aristotle is quoted as stating that the essence of life is “to serve others and do good.” Not only does serving others through volunteer work seem to imbue our lives with extra meaning, purpose and direction; it also fosters optimism and greater satisfaction in how we fill our days on this earth. This seems especially true of the volunteers for Regional Hospice and Palliative Care (RHPC), centered out of Danbury, Conn., who dedicate their time to terminally ill patients facing the end of life.
“[Death is] something we all will face. It’s something that’s inevitable,” said Dennis, of New Fairfield, who has been volunteering for RHPC for the past two-and-a-half years. “If we can help someone get through it more comfortably, hopefully we can help take some of the pain away.”
When Dennis retired from an almost 40-year career as a school psychologist, he and his wife knew they wanted to fill their newfound, extra free time with purposeful activity. Having grown up in an “atmosphere of kindness and giving,” volunteering was an obvious next step to Dennis’s lifetime of working in service to others. “It’s something I feel I want to do. It just makes sense. It’s just so important,” he said.
With a cousin who worked in hospice, Dennis realized how vital and meaningful volunteering time to hospice would be. He and his wife went through the 24 hours of intensive training that RHPC provides to volunteers on end of life, death and dying and the function of the hospice team. Now, Dennis is a family support volunteer in the Center for Comfort Care and Healing, working directly with the patients and their families, as well as the nurses and aides who provide their care.
Regional Hospice and Palliative Care Founded in Volunteerism
When Regional Hospice and Palliative Care was founded in the ’80s, the agency was largely a volunteer movement. It was a grassroots organization of local doctors and nurses seeking to provide a holistic and compassionate “alternative for death and dying,” said Manager of Volunteer Services Laura Cordeira. At its inception, the agency provided care for the terminally ill in the comfort of their own homes–an alternative to the medicalized way people were dying in hospitals.
Over time, RHPC realized the need for “an alternative for end-of-life care other than a home or hospital.” This led to the development of the in-patient specialty hospital, the Center for Comfort Care and Healing in Danbury. It is the state’s first and only private-suite facility, servicing patients and their families from throughout the country, but especially those from Connecticut and New York. The center has 12 private suites for patients and provides a 1:6 ratio of clinical care from nurses, home health aides and pediatric specialists.
“We specialize in pediatric hospice,” said Cordeira. “We’re the largest pediatric hospice in the state of Connecticut.”
The majority of the patients supported by RHPC–which serves Fairfield, New Haven, Hartford & Litchfield counties–choose to remain living at home, where they receive nursing care management, spiritual care, social work, home health aides and all durable equipment prescription medication from the agency, in addition to volunteer services. However, the Center is ”another option for people whose symptoms can’t be managed at home,” said Cordeira. “Additionally, lots of patients–especially those with young families–don’t want to be home when they die.”
There are plenty of family spaces at the center, she explains, because “they are often present and involved at the end of life” for their loved ones. The center is “peaceful and quiet, but it’s also lively,” said Cordeira. “It doesn’t smell, sound or look like a hospital. Volunteers are drawn to it because it’s an uplifting place.”
Looking For a Few More Good Men & Veteran Volunteers
Cordeira started volunteering at the agency, prior to the Center for Comfort Care and Healing opening three years ago. “As a volunteer, what’s most rewarding is how appreciative the families are for the things you do,” she said, recalling the respite she provided for a daughter who was primary caregiver to her mother.
She would watch over the mother while the daughter spent an hour getting shopping done or practicing self-care. “It was rare for her to have time for herself. She would give me hugs and kisses, she was so grateful. She could get out and have time for herself,” she said. “Something that seems so simple can make such a difference for someone.”
Cordeira was later hired as volunteer coordinator to design and help launch the volunteer program at the Center for Comfort Care and Healing. “We really are a volunteer-driven organization,” she said. “Our President/CEO Cynthia Roy really understands and values volunteers, and makes sure all the team members feel that way. The staff Is so appreciative of all the things volunteers do for the patients and our agency at large.”
Volunteers come from all walks of life. “A lot of them have been impacted by hospice or significant death or loss in their life,” said Cordeira. “There are some who have a medical background, but the majority don’t. The majority are compassionate people who were helped in their time of need and want to pay it forward.”
Dennis, who draws from his decades of experience in counseling, also works with the Healing Hearts program, a free, grief and bereavement program at RHPC. “Families bring their children to participate in a support group, and parents have a support group as well,” he said, “I lead one of the adult groups.” (Support groups are also provided to the volunteers twice a month.)
RHPC has numerous specialty volunteers, including those with expertise in complementary therapy, spiritual care and the performing arts. Veteran volunteers also play an extremely valuable role at RHPC. “The veteran population benefits from someone who can understand the vernacular and can relate to things they saw and did [while enlisted], who share the same code of honor,” said Cordeira.
“A lot of patients haven’t talked about war experiences in a long time, and it’s something they need or want to do when facing end of life,” she said. For these patients, it can make a tremendous difference to have people who understand them, thank them and appreciate them. Cordeira also explained that patients who served in the military can receive help in accessing veteran benefits and awards.
To honor those Americans whose voluntary “efforts most frequently touch the lives of the poor, the young, the aged and the sick, but in the process the lives of all men and women are made richer,“ President Richard M. Nixon first declared National Volunteer Week on April 20, 1974. A study by Corporation for National Community and Service from 2015 found that nearly 63 million people–835,036 of them here in Connecticut–supported their communities by donating an accumulative 7.8 billion hours of time to others. Thirty-six percent of volunteers were over the age of 54, approximately 25 percent were veterans and nearly 22 percent off them were men.
During this National Volunteer Month, the RHPC especially encourages a few more, good men to volunteer directly with their patients and families. Currently, the majority of male volunteers for RHPC help in administrative roles, fundraising and as board members. Out of the 200 volunteers working with patients and families, only 15 are men. “In particular, we are looking for vets and men because [male patients] are looking for people who can talk shop with them. They really appreciate a man to just come and hang out with them; it feels like a different dynamic,” said Cordeira.
Dennis posited that perhaps one of the reasons there are far fewer men that volunteer at Regional Hospice is that caregiving has been traditionally seen a role for women. “A lot of men have a misconception about how touchy feely you need to be in this role,” Cordeira added. “You’’re really just hanging out with the patient.”
Volunteers don’t perform any medical or personal care. The majority of time is spent providing companionship for the patient or respite for the caregiver. Plus, a volunteer’s personality and interests are taken into consideration when matching them with any one of the more than 100 patients in the community at any given time, or with the 12 at the Center for Comfort Care and Healing. “Volunteers never have to say ‘yes’ to an assignment,” Cordeira said “You don’t have to apologize for saying ‘no.’”
Some patients might just need help cleaning their refrigerator or would simply appreciate a weekly call to check it. A family member of one patient simply sought a volunteer to watch UConn basketball with her dad. Other assignments might be more hands-on and offer greater opportunities for deeper connection: Cordeira shared how one patient wanted to learn the guitar and a volunteer who had been in a rock band was happy to teach the patient how to play the instrument; they spent their time together ‘jamming out’.
Dennis recalled an impactful experience that occurred while spending a lot of time with a children’s book author. After they found out they shared a fondness for a particular musical performer, Dennis was able to pull up and play a favorite song of hers on his phone. “She had the biggest grin on her face. She was ecstatic. We both sang the words along with the song,” he said.
Another time, Dennis recalls: “I was sitting and talking with quite a verbal 103-year-old woman, and we both had the background of growing up in Brooklyn.” When he noticed she had a picture of her and her husband wearing hardhats in front of a house familiar to him, she explained how, as an amateur photographer years ago, she stumbled across a renovation going on at “probably the oldest house in Brooklyn.” She told Dennis how she did a photo series of the house, and he was able to use his smartphone to find the pictures and the history of the house. “She said, ‘Yes, that’s it! That’s the house! That’s so exciting!’ She was amazed that you could get this information so easily on the phone.”
In a society where many people tend to shy away from death and avoid the dying, volunteers like Dennis, who offer a receptive ear and open heart to those eager to reminisce about their lives, demonstrate the value of a kind heart. “So many of us are really fortunate in terms of what we have in our lives. That’s not true for everybody,” he said. “If we could reach out and help them, we know it takes a burden off them. And it just feels good.”
The Health Benefits of Volunteering
Dennis–who also donates his time elsewhere and records audiobooks for the blind and handicapped–pointed out how volunteering doesn’t just help patients and their families. “Research is clear how important social interaction is in our lives, especially as we age,” he said.
Research out of Brigham Young University suggests that social isolation and loneliness are as great a threat to longevity as obesity and heavy smoking. The 2015 study found that while social isolation significantly increases the risk for mortality in older adults who generally tend to be more lonely, it was also a key indicator for premature death among those younger than 65. However, regular and frequent volunteering for altruistic reasons–doing so with the central aim of help others, not one’s self–was associated with decreased mortality risk in older adults, according to a 2012 study reported in the journal Health Psychology.
A strong sense of purpose is not only good for our emotional heart center; it also seems to have multiple benefits for our physiological heart. A 2013 study from Carnegie Mellon University showed a link between regular volunteerism and lowered risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) in adults over age 50. Those who find a greater sense of purpose in life through serving others are also at reduced risk for for cardiovascular events, like heart attack or stroke, according to a review of 10 prospective studies of more than a hundred thousand participants, as reported in 2016 by Psychosomatic Medicine. Volunteering may also be associated with better physical and mental health outcomes because volunteers are more likely to use preventive health care services. According to a 2016 study published in Social Science and Medicine, people who volunteered were 47 percent more likely to receive cholesterol tests and 30 percent more likely to get flu shots. Females who volunteered were 53 percent more likely to get mammograms and 21 percent more likely to get Pap Smears, while male volunteers were 59 percent more likely to get their prostates examined. Both men and women who volunteered also tended to spent less time in the hospital. They were also more likely to engage in physical activity.
In addition to the physical benefits of volunteering, more time spent actively showing care and concern for others is associated with improved mental and psychological wellbeing. The ongoing study of volunteerism by the Baltimore Experience Corps found that volunteers 60 years and older who engaged in mentally stimulating activities, like tutoring and reading to others, had decreased rates of decline in memory and better cognitive functioning (in addition to fewer falls and decreased disability). Face-to-face visits with older adults has often been show to help them to fend off depression.
Additionally, volunteering may also help participants to manage stress, which impacts heart health and overall longevity. “We know that stress, depression, and anger all have negative effects on the body, especially with regard to the risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Eric Kim, research fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as reported by Harvard Health Blog.
“Many people find volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction,” Carnegie Mellon’s lead study author Rodlescia Sneed said.
Helping others helps take the focus off the egoic self and the futile habit of rumination and worry. By engendering a sense of equanimity and greater purpose, volunteering also boosts our sense of connection with one another. When we recognize that we are all interdependent and knit together, the extension of applying the golden rule means that when we help others feel good, we naturally feel good too.
“Once you get involved [in volunteer work], you realize this is a good thing,” Dennis offered as encouragement to those unsure of what involvement might entail. “Everybody I’ve come in contact with at Regional Hospice are truly amazing people–caring and giving. I’m privileged to become part of it.” Through sharing his positive experiences working for hospice, he’s inspired others to volunteer as well. He invites people to look at their discretionary time and be more reflective about how they spend it.
“We live in a time and place where there’s so much negativity. As a manager of volunteers, I get to go to a job where people are doing something nice for others.” said Cordeira. “Kindness is heartwarming; it’s not something you get to see all the time.”
The Center for Comfort Care and Healing is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Learn more about Regional Hospice and Palliative Care at RegionalHospiceCT.org. For information on volunteer opportunities at RHPC, call 203.702.7415.
For readers outside of Connecticut, learn more about public service and volunteer opportunities at USA.gov