The on-call program, which was launched in July 2011, aims to provide support to patients on the verge of death and also help their loved ones cope with the stress and emotion of the final moments.
“We do believe that there’s something to having someone there, and that patient may know that they’re not alone and that may comfort them,” said Kelly Andrew, director of development at Horizon. “Our main goal in hospice is always to keep that patient as comfortable as possible.”
Horizon created the Final Hours program when its nurses, social workers and chaplains identified the need for more hospice help to ensure no patient died alone. Since the organization is a nonprofit, it has limited funds to provide staff for hospice patients at all times.
“The best solution for us was to create an opportunity for volunteers to provide the service,” Andrew said.
The vigil program currently has about a dozen volunteers, who have been particularly successful in covering hours this year. According to Andrew, volunteers collectively served 42 hospice hours in April and 27 hours in June.
“That’s time really above and beyond what our staff are able to give, and it’s free of charge of course for the patient and the family,” Andrew said.
Before an interested volunteer can jump into the Final Hours program, they must fulfill hours as either a friendly visitor or a hospice companion. Friendly visitors spend time in the homes of patients and form longer-term relationships with the patients and their caregivers. Friendly visitors typically make it to a home once a week and often play cards, read books and exchange conversations with the patient and caregivers. Their patients usually aren’t very close to death.
Hospice companions serve in Horizon’s in-patient unit at Columbia St. Mary’s Ozaukee campus in Mequon and assist Horizon’s nurses and the rest of the staff to gain confidence in working with patients. They may reposition patients and act as a resource to ensure patients have the best stay possible.
This preliminary volunteer work helps Horizon volunteers build experiences with patients to ensure they are well prepared to go alone into the home of a dying patient and ease their last hours of living.
Additional training in the Final Hours program covers hands-on care, repositioning, oral care, transfers, end of life issues, symptoms volunteers might see in patients and need to explain to caregivers, and scenarios volunteers might confront with emotional caregivers.
Andrew said most of the Final Hours volunteers are people who have experienced a death in their own life that was very meaningful to them.
John Ward, of Grafton, has been volunteering with Final Hours for over four months and has worked with at least five patients and caregivers. Ward decided to get involved with Horizon after his mother, who was a hospice patient with another provider, passed away. He describes it as the ultimate form of volunteering.
“The primary focus and concern is for the patient, but you also have to direct your attention to the family members because they’re going through a very difficult time, themselves,” Ward said.
“There is no textbook telling these families what to expect or go through, but effectively from the experience you’ve had you’re helping them through this journey providing comfort and support.”
Ward typically spends three or four hours with patients and caregivers. He often talks and reads to patients and interacts with the caregivers. Sometimes caregivers will need to do laundry or run errands, so his role allows them time to take care of those responsibilities.
Ward said that since he is an on-call volunteer and receives little notice about when and where he is needed, he must assess each situation as best he can without much preparation.
Horizon recruits volunteers to reach out to hospice patients in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington Counties and part of Dodge County. For more information about volunteering, visit http://horizonhch.org/.