On doing and being at hospice

I’ve been volunteering at hospice for the better part of a year. I’m still very much a newbie, but I’m also beginning to settle in to the somewhat predictable rhythms of my Wednesday morning shift.

Rhythms of my shift

I sign in at 8:45 and receive morning report from the volunteer who arrived an hour earlier. I go quietly from room to room, adding my name to each resident’s whiteboard, sometimes tip-toeing in and out of a sleeping resident’s room, sometimes stopping to say hello or take a breakfast order or clear a tray. In the kitchen there’s coffee to make, a dishwasher to load or unload. The phone rings, I answer it and do my best to be helpful to whoever is on the other end. Some residents can no longer feed themselves, so I do that. Visitors arrive, I bring more chairs. Bells ring, I try to get there first. The nurses are busy, if I can save them a walk down the hall, I will. It takes two people to reposition a resident, one on each side, two hands on the sliding sheet. “On your count”, I say. “On three” says the nurse, “one, two, three” and we slide a resident up the bed, straightening pillows and smoothing blankets. Sometimes I help with morning care, patting down wet skin after a bed bath, carefully rubbing drugstore moisturizer on fragile skin. The smells don’t bother me. They’re human smells; they’re honest smells. Then the morning has slipped away and lunch orders begin to arrive. I’m in the kitchen heating soup when the 1pm volunteer arrives. We find a quiet spot so I can give him my report. As I leave, I wave goodbye to the nurses. Stepping outside, I inhale deeply and look up at the sky.

Every shift is coloured by the presence of dying, only some shifts are punctuated by the occasion of death. On these days I make many trips to reception, escorting family members and friends to their loved one’s bedside. I walk the funeral home attendants through the big double doors that separate the residence from the rest of the building. Nurses and volunteers line the corridors in a final act of care for the person who has died. For the next 24 hours a battery-powered tea light shines beside a card bearing the resident’s name. Then it, too, is extinguished.

It’s beautiful. It’s ordinary. It’s holding the hand of a centenarian while she tries to remember the names of all her great-grandchildren. It’s scrubbing dishes that have been left too long in the sink.

Doing for, being with

Early on I wrote about adopting the mantra “whatever is needed” for my time at hospice, and I continue to hold this close to my heart. But recently I’ve experienced a shift in how I embody this mantra. In a place like hospice, where there’s always the busywork of fetching ice and wiping counters, it’s easy to prioritize tasks over people. I’ve found myself occasionally moving so quickly from one task to the next that I’ve momentarily lost touch with the people at the centre of this work. I’m there to serve the residents, not the dishwasher. And while, yes, loading and unloading the dishwasher is part of serving the residents, the dishes can wait. Dishes and counters, feeding and washing, these are “doing for” moments. But sometimes what’s needed isn’t a “doing for” it’s a “being with”.

There’s vulnerability in sitting down beside a resident and asking if they’d like some company. Is my presence an intrusion? Will they feel compelled to act a certain way with me there? Are they tired of so many new faces coming and going? Sometimes it’s impossible to know without asking. So I ask. If they decline, I feel grateful for their honesty. If they accept, I feel grateful for their willingness. Sometimes we talk, sometimes not. Sometimes they sleep and I meditate beside them. I’ll get to the dishes, I always do. But in this moment, I do what’s needed.

Image © 2019 Erin Bidlake

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