Volunteering the gift of time
While the goal of the Cape Cod Healthcare VNA of Cape Cod Hospice program is to provide comfort and support to patients and family members, it is the volunteers who provide one of the most important aspects of the care; the gift of time.
“We think of the volunteers as an integral part of the hospice team and a safe presence in the home,” said Kathy Berry-McDonagh, the VNA volunteer coordinator, who oversees approximately 40 hospice volunteers as well as another 80 volunteers throughout the agency.
“They are there for the patient and the caregiver to provide whatever assistance they may need outside the realm of personal hands-on type of care,” she said.
Volunteers mainly provide respite and their visits often give the caregiver time to be outside of the home to do errands, attend an event, go to an appointment or have time to themselves. The volunteer may sit with the patient, keep them company, play cards, read to them, , or simply provide conversation.
“Some of the volunteers do the “telling your story” program that is very popular,” said Berry-McDonagh. “They record the patient’s life story and I transfer it to a CD, which is mailed to their family.”
Among the 40 hospice volunteers who give of their time to assist in various ways are four who do the pet therapy program and four who provide Reiki. Their gifts provide additional comfort and bring smiles to the faces of many, she said.
Meghan Hanawalt of Falmouth has been doing pet therapy for four years. Angus, a yellow Labrador Retriever, is her side-kick and they have been volunteers with the VNA hospice program for 1 ½ years.
“I got into pet therapy because Angus has the perfect temperament for soothing people,” said Hanawalt. “He is very calm and loving but not-in-your-face loving. His way of operating is to make himself at home. He will greet them, enjoy some petting and then will just lay there next to them.”
Another reason she decided to become involved in pet therapy was because of a friend who has Alzheimer’s disease, who lived on a memory unit in an assisted living facility.
“I didn’t know what to do to help Fred. I started taking him on unofficial walks at the facility and when I handed him Angus’ leash, he knew just what to do,” she said.
Pet therapy became a way for Hanawalt to give back.
“All the dogs are registered with Therapy Dogs International, we keep their records up-to-date, the handlers send me their new certificates, yearly, and they have all passed the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program,” said Berry-McDonagh.
Most of the patients Hanawalt and Angus visit have had dogs. While she works mostly on the Upper Cape, the duo recently visited a hospice patient in Middleboro.
“She had recently lost her dog, so there was a huge gap in the family’s life,” said Hanawalt. “It was especially good that Angus wasn’t like the dog they had lost, so he wasn’t a replication but a distraction.”
She considers her role to be that of a chauffeur for Angus and said that’s perfect for her.
“The patient wants to see Angus and not necessarily me, although I do get to know the patients, too.”
While she is happy to share Angus because he brightens up everyone’s day, she also said,” it’s such a privilege to be a part of the end of a person’s life.”
Ann O’Callaghan of Harwich is a Reiki Master Practitioner, who has volunteered with the VNA Hospice program since 2006, providing Reiki treatments and doing respite work.
“I’m the second oldest of seven children, so I’ve always been helping others,” said O’Callaghan.
As a Reiki practitioner she balances the energy in a person’s body that, in turn, helps to relieve pain, stress, anxiety and inflammation.
“Your energy can be blocked if you are anxious or your body is with ‘dis-ease’ such as a knee replacement or with cancer. Reiki can open up the block.”
The treatment involves a gentle laying of hands on specific areas of the body.
“It’s not manipulative and is just a very gentle touch,” said O’Callaghan. She recommends trying it and remaining open to whatever happens.
O’Callaghan said she has had wonderful experiences giving Reiki to patients and caregivers. She provided Reiki treatments to one of her patient’s wife for five years after his passing.
“She told me she saw how he benefited from the treatments and she wanted to feel that way,” said O’Callaghan.
O’Callaghan also volunteers to provide respite to hospice families.
“I’ve cleaned closets and refrigerators. I helped a patient organize all her files because her family wasn’t able to deal with the thought of her passing. She wanted to make sure all her papers were in order.”
Berry-McDonagh said she tries to match patients with volunteers who may share the same interests or hobbies. She gathers information when she makes an initial call to the caregiver or patient a couple of weeks after the patient is admitted to hospice. She often finds her best referrals are from the hospice social worker.
“Families may not realize what they need at first and the social worker is able to help them see where they may need assistance.”
More Reiki practitioners and handlers with therapy dogs are needed for the VNA Hospice program, according to Berry-McDonagh. Orientation includes hospice training. More information is available by calling Berry-McDonagh at 508-957-7709.