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Hospice volunteers learn about life through terminally ill

Volunteering at Compassus Hospice in Jefferson City taught Connie Cunningham how important time is. “Everybody’s struggling, if that little bit of time I can give each week to somebody can make them feel good, I’ve done a pretty good job with my own purpose,” she said. In the past year, Cunningham, a nonmedical volunteer, has worked with three patients. “Many times, these individuals have much more complicated days than the rest of us do, so if I brought even a little bit of comfort, that feels really good,” she said.

The hospice provider is looking for patient and administrator volunteers, volunteer coordinator Deborah Coots said. Those interested can apply online at “We’re always looking for qualified non-medical volunteers for our office to provide social visits, companionship and just emotional support for our patients,” she said.

For hospices, volunteers need to provide day-to-day administrative and/or direct patient care services that amount to at least 5 percent of the staff’s total working hours, according to Medicare rules. Requirements for volunteers Compassus Hospice requires its volunteers to go through a background check, training, a COVID-19 test and receive vaccines (or provide a valid waiver), as well as a two-step tuberculosis test, Coots said.

During their training, volunteers will learn about what a hospice does and its mission, the different teams of nurses, medical directors, chaplains and social workers and the main diseases that affect the patients — such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Coots said. As the volunteer coordinator, Coots is responsible for matching a patient with a volunteer by similarities and location, she said. “Typically, the patient that needs a volunteer just has one (volunteer),” she said. Cunningham began volunteering at the hospice after retiring about a year and a half ago.

She wanted to become a volunteer at Compassus Hospice after her brother received hospice care from Compassus years ago. “This was a really positive experience for him to go through, and for our family to go through, so I’ve always kept them in the back of my mind,” she said. A friend who is also a volunteer praised the professionalism of the staff and the support staff members give to volunteers, convincing Cunningham to join them, she said. Coots would like to find volunteers who are empathetic and dependable, and have experiences with death and dying, as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“They’re like an umbrella in the rain, they’re there when we need them,” Coots said. Volunteers’ tasks Cunningham played bingo with one patient, played cards with another and would read to yet another. While each patient has different needs, her tasks were “more than just asking, ‘How are you?'” she said. She also acts as a bridge between the patient and the medical staff. She would relay her patients’ complaints and needs to the staff, she said.

A visit can be 10 minutes or 50, she said, and she usually visits her current patient once a week, Cunningham said. “Many of these individuals wear out very quick, sometimes you just sit quietly by their bedside,” she added. Coots described hospice volunteers as “a kind, caring, compassionate presence” to the patients. While visiting, the volunteers’ tasks include listening to the patients’ life reviews, reading books and magazines, watching television together and playing music. “Sometimes, the patients just need someone to listen to them and tell them they still have value,” Coots said. A late patient of hers would always say, “Now please, make sure you come back” to Cunningham after each visit, the volunteer recalled. She and this patient developed such a strong bond that if she did not visit each week, the patient would scold her “in a good way,” Cunningham said. “One time I said, ‘I was here just a couple weeks ago,’ and she said, ‘Oh no, it was longer than that,'” Cunningham said. “So I mean, that makes you feel good, that makes you feel like you’re looking forward to your visits.”

One of her favorite memories was visiting that patient after a Kansas City Chiefs game and talking about it. “We both loved (Chiefs quarterback) Patrick Mahomes. So, I will always think of her with every Chiefs game that I watch,” she said. There are around 100 patients admitted in the hospice, with a little more than half living in nursing, Coots said. They are not just older patients either. “Terminal illness doesn’t discriminate, we have, unfortunately, babies on up to 106 (years old),” she said. While not all patients need long-term volunteers, the hospice receives a lot of requests for one-time caregiver relief, Coots said. Volunteers are needed for these one-off visits. Volunteers arrange their own schedules for visiting their patients. The frequency of volunteer visits depends on the patient, Coots added. After each visit, Cunningham would write a report for Coots. In it, she would describe how the visit went, the conditions of the patient and things the hospice should be aware of, she said. “That always makes me feel good, because I know what I put in there is not just going in a file. (Coots) will follow back up,” Cunningham said.

Compassus also encourages volunteers to take care of themselves. The staff there has always been appreciative and supportive of volunteers who need to take a few weeks off, she said. Gaining insight from volunteering Cunningham felt she gained a lot more than she gave while volunteering, since her patients would tell her their life stories, which she found fascinating. “Just to be able to get that trust, it’s huge,” she said. New volunteers will find out very quickly that patients can be very talkative, even though people may find such voluntary work to be awkward at first, Cunningham said. “I don’t think there’s a wrong or right way to do it; I think it’s just figuring out what your person wants and what you can give to them, and just giving it a try,” she said. “You’re not always going in there being emotional … you’re going in there and you’re laughing … you get to hear a lot of great stories.”

To learn about our current volunteer opportunities, visit our Volunteers page.