A memorable song from the past or a catchy melody helps Dennis spark connections with many hospice patients, especially those who are non-verbal.

“Everyone approaches death differently,” said hospice chaplain Dennis Zimmerman. Patients wonder how family will get along without them. They share regrets, make small talk and some patients dig deep into questions about dying and what comes next.

“My job on the hospice team is to listen, counsel and help patients feel safe. I offer comfort and let them know they matter," said Dennis. “People think hospice work must be sad, hard work. We laugh all day long. People tell me wonderful stories.”

 In 2016, about 1.4 million Americans with terminal conditions enrolled in hospice care. Because many Americans aren’t connected with a church or members of the clergy, hospice chaplains are trained to respect the beliefs and cultural traditions of a diverse mix of patients. They must often counter the myths that they try to convert patients or only rush to the bedside in the final hours of life.

“I pray with patients, but spirituality goes beyond the religious. It’s our connection to each other and our connection with the universe,” said Dennis. “For many, even those without church connections, it’s comforting to talk about what they believe and what’s next.”

Chaplains are part of a larger hospice health care team. Medicare requires hospice providers to offer the option of spiritual care from a trained hospice chaplain. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed about 72 percent of hospice patients opted for spiritual support, including grief support from the chaplain. 

There is growing recognition, backed by research, showing a correlation between spiritual support and overall patient well-being. The goal of the hospice team is to care for patients and their loved ones: mind, body and spirit. While the chaplain focuses on the spiritual side, this holistic approach to care is practiced by the entire hospice team.

 “To be with someone at that pivotal transition moment is a privilege, it’s a sacred trust,” Dennis said. “We take that very seriously.”

Related items

Grief support

Bereavement doesn’t start with the death of a loved one. Anticipatory grief is the realization that the end may be near. Hospice chaplains help patients and their family through each stage of grief–before, during and after death.

Pastoral care is optional

Hospice pastoral care is optional and can be started or stopped at any time. Hospice chaplains never promote a religion or seek to convert. They listen first to ensure they meet people wherever they are in life’s journey; regardless of religion, culture or family traditions. 

Pastoral care for family and fellow caregivers

Anger, fear or depression can affect family and fellow caregivers alike. Hospice chaplains are trained to guide all through the emotional challenges that arise with a serious illness or death.