Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care volunteer Bill Shulman comes from a family with deep roots in Boston’s Jewish Community and a connection to Hebrew SeniorLife that spans generations. I sat down with him recently to learn about his experience as a hospice volunteer.
JD: There are many volunteer opportunities in Boston. What motivated you to become an HSL Hospice Care volunteer?
BS: A couple of years ago one of my closest friends developed a rare form of Parkinson’s disease that was similar to ALS. I spent a day each week with him for the last year of his life. At first I visited because I just wanted to be with him. As time went on, I started taking him to doctor’s appointments so his wife wouldn’t have to take time off from work, and taking care of personal tasks like dressing and grooming —things that I would never have expected I would ever do for someone who wasn’t a family member. I found myself needing to go back more often and for longer periods of time. And the experience changed my life.
I made a commitment to my friend and his wife that after he passed, I was going to become a hospice volunteer. When I learned that Hebrew SeniorLife had started a Jewish hospice care program, I called and enrolled in the next available training session.
JD: What happens in HSL’s volunteer training sessions?
BS: The program is 20 hours—once a week for seven weeks. I think those who decide to become hospice volunteers are a bit nervous at the beginning. Twenty hours of training gets you to a place where you feel as comfortable as you can be when facing a new experience as profound as helping take care of an individual who faces a life-limiting illness.
The training program was well thought out. It ranged from understanding what hospice is to learning how to communicate appropriately and listen attentively. We learned relaxation techniques that help us, as volunteers, to put our best foot forward.
We learned how to work with people with dementia. An HSL trainer spent two hours with us getting us to know what to look for and how to spend time with someone who is less communicative than we have been accustomed to. We learned techniques to help make visits as enjoyable and to be as helpful as possible.
We learned how different religious traditions and practices inform what individuals would want to experience or not experience at time of death.
And finally we learned how to establish boundaries and understand where our role starts and ends.
JD: What do volunteers do?
BS: As a volunteer we’re asked to commit to visit a patient a minimum of an hour or two, twice a week for one year. We’re asked to document every visit, which gets shared with the hospice care team. We serve as an additional set of eyes and ears. Some of us see the patient two to three times a week for longer periods of time—whatever seems to work.
HSL’s hospice volunteer coordinator, Sara Smolover tries to pair volunteers with individuals that she believes will be the best fit. She does that by taking in as much information as possible about a patient to understand what his/her needs are. She finds out things like, whether or not the patient would be comfortable with a man or a woman or would like someone who could sing. The duties of a volunteer range from driving a spouse on errands, to providing respite care for a spouse, to simply spending time with and providing comfort to the patient.
As an example, I like to sing, so Sara will pair me with individuals who like to sing or listen to music. For my first visit I’ll put together some song lyrics to see which ones my patient knows, and then we might put together a song booklet so when we come together we have the songs to share.
It really comes down to understanding what the family needs. Family members are the patients’ advocates and they try to figure out what will be most beneficial for their loved-one. As volunteers we continue on the path that the family sets. We’re there to do whatever the patients and their families need.
JD: How do you work with the other team members?
BS: The volunteers meet together every month, which gives us a chance to share our experiences. That keeps us connected and gives us a chance to learn from each other.
Anytime there is a change in the status of one of our patients we’re notified immediately, whether it’s by the social worker, the nurse, the rabbi or the volunteer coordinator. That keeps us in the loop so when we go to spend time with a patient we’re not surprised by anything. As examples, we may learn something as simple as the patient has a cold, or has been exhibiting signs of further fatigue and maybe the volunteer should keep the visit short.
We continue to be motivated and loved by the staff. Any time someone passes, the team reaches out to us to thank us for the time we’ve spent with the patient and patient family, to make sure we’re OK, and to ask if we need time to unwind before starting with another journey.
JD: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking of becoming a hospice volunteer?
BS: I would encourage them to seek out HSL, or at least do a training program. To become a hospice volunteer without having a thorough training program would be incredibly difficult. But I would say that personally, becoming a volunteer was something I didn’t think I would ever be able to do, and now it’s by far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done with my spare time. I can’t imagine not continuing this for as long as I possibly can.
As a volunteer, you’ll meet like-minded people and the professionals who do this kind of work are very special—motivated, dedicated and givers. I can’t imagine that there is any more fulfilling way to spend two-five hours a week or that you could accomplish more than as a hospice volunteer.
JD: Do you think HSL is fulfilling the promise to provide the hospice service that Boston’s Jewish Community needs?
BS: Absolutely. And Boston’s Jewish Community needed the support that Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care provides.
At the same time, a number of the patients I have worked with have not been Jewish. The experience has been similar to that of working with my Jewish patients. I look at the core values that I learned growing up in a Jewish family—to be available when someone needs you. I went on so many condolence calls with my parents, and I would marvel at how they always seemed to know what to say. I learned to care and to be compassionate and spirituality comes with that.
JD: Anything else?
BS: I guess I would say that I’ve been surprised at how it is possible to connect and build a relationship with someone you’ve only met in the last month or so of their life. And that the people you serve are gracious about letting a volunteer into their lives. Families are so grateful to have people willing to spend time with their loved-ones and that it really makes the end-of-life process that much easier. You feel like you’re surrounded by love, respect and caring. It helps me as a volunteer deal with situations that are not always easy.
But the joy and the feeling of doing a Mitzvah by far outweighs the difficult moments. The predominant feeling I experience is that I’m providing a service that is appreciated. As a volunteer we’re adding a layer and a personal touch to the hospice care experience.
Visit our Hospice Volunteer Opportunity page to find out how you can become a Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care volunteer.
About Hospice Care at Hebrew Seniorlife
The hospice care offered at Hebrew Seniorlife as part of our continuum of health care services is aimed at easing patients’ pain and supporting their families at end of life. A leading provider of Jewish hospice services in the Boston area, we are known for delivering the highest quality of care, focusing on a commitment to community, and offering innovative end-of-life educational programming. We welcome patients and their families of all backgrounds, faiths and cultures, supporting them through the challenging weeks and months of terminal illness and remaining close by as families and friends begin to heal after loss.