While curative care teams pour their energy into healing patients, palliative care teams focus on providing comfort and symptom management for patients with chronic injuries, illnesses, or diseases. Hospice care is a form of palliative care provided to patients during their final months of life. The goal of hospice is simple: to ensure end-of-life patients receive comprehensive social, physical, emotional, and spiritual support.
As members of a hospice team, hospice volunteers play a vital part in improving patients’ end-of-life experiences. While hospice volunteering is not a new practice, the size of America’s aging population—individuals 65 years and older will outnumber those under the age of 18 by 2034—has led to steadily increasing demand for hospice volunteers. To remain viable, hospice organizations must continuously recruit and train high-quality volunteers.
Why Are Hospice Volunteers Important?
Hospice volunteers provide a crucial service within the palliative care field, offering a human connection to patients during a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. For many hospice organizations, implementing a volunteer program is more than just a suggestion—it’s a requirement. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), all Medicare-certified hospice establishments must have a hospice volunteer program in place and leverage volunteers for at least 5% of patient care hours, although CMS has temporarily waived that requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A robust hospice volunteer program begins with a comprehensive understanding of the unique and multifaceted role hospice volunteers play. Through a wide array of support functions, volunteers are empowered to forge deep relationships with hospice patients and their families.
What Do Hospice Volunteers Do?
Hospice volunteers assist with a variety of tasks, from providing bedside support to assisting patients with the activities of daily living. Their roles can vary between organizations, making it especially important for volunteers to understand the unique role they play within their particular organization. Despite their differences, all hospice volunteer roles and activities hinge on successful interpersonal communication. In the most effective hospice teams, volunteers form meaningful connections with patients and practitioners alike.
To ensure all hospice volunteers receive comprehensive onboarding, hospice administrators must have an in-depth understanding of the many hospice volunteer activities that can be performed, including:
Emotional and Social Support
Fostering genuine, empathetic relationships with patients is a critical component of end-of-life care. Hospice volunteers help fill this need and serve as invaluable members of the palliative care team.
By offering friendship and comfort outside a clinical context, volunteers allow patients to receive a higher level of support during their final stage of life. Hospice volunteers do not need to understand the minutiae of mental health care to provide effective emotional support. In fact, volunteers should not attempt to simulate the work of a counselor or therapist at all. Emotional and social support from volunteers should only take the form of bedside friendship and communication with relatives.
Palliative care, and especially hospice care, is one of the few areas of our current healthcare system that strays from strictly objective, research-based practice. Hospice volunteers often help patients conduct their spiritual traditions, joining them in guided prayer, meditation, and more.
Some patients may simply want to discuss spiritual matters, like their thoughts on death and the afterlife. Regardless of a hospice volunteer’s religious affiliation, they should possess an attitude of genuine respect for patients’ spiritual beliefs and a willingness to discuss them.
Daily Living Support
Many hospice volunteers are asked to assist patients with daily tasks. Serving meals, tidying living quarters, and buying groceries (if the patient is receiving hospice care at home) can all be part of a volunteer’s routine visit.
By assisting patients with these (and other) daily tasks, volunteers help relieve some of the stress patients and their family members are experiencing. In many cases, this type of support also brings volunteers closer to their patients.
Hospice volunteers are an integral part of a tight-knit team of hospice staff. Volunteers offer the interpersonal support that medical professionals don’t always have the capacity to provide.
To help hospice care run smoothly, hospice volunteers should remain in close communication with hospice healthcare professionals at all times, updating them on patients’ conditions and additional areas of need.
How to Recruit Hospice Volunteers
Recruiting volunteers can be an arduous task. While it may be tempting to readily accept any volunteer who expresses interest, volunteers must never be selected solely based on convenience. Hospice volunteering is a sensitive and nuanced practice, and the volunteer selection process should be approached accordingly. To free hospital staff from the challenge of volunteer recruitment and management, many organizations decide to identify a designated volunteer coordinator. This position can be filled by an existing employee or an outside hire.
The volunteer coordinator oversees all aspects of the volunteer team, including recruitment, onboarding, and scheduling. Volunteer coordinators will often reach out to local churches, senior centers, and retirement communities to help identify interested volunteers. Individuals with time, compassion, and an eagerness to serve hospice patients are the best candidates.
While some individuals may be deterred by the thought of supporting patients during their final months of life, countless others find the process deeply rewarding. When recruiting volunteers, it’s important to emphasize the value that an emotional, physical, and spiritual support partner can play in creating a sense of peace and comfort for patients receiving hospice care.
What Makes a Good Hospice Volunteer?
Volunteers do not need extensive medical expertise, but rather a strong set of interpersonal skills. Building relationships with people who are terminally ill is a highly sensitive process, and it is not for everyone. Comprehensive hospice volunteer interview questions are designed to identify the common traits of effective hospice volunteers, including:
- Compassion: The objective of hospice is to make life more comfortable for end-of-life patients. To help patients navigate this phase of their lives, volunteers must possess a strong aptitude for compassion and empathy. Volunteers should also be personable, friendly, and open to new perspectives.
- Dedication: Hospice volunteers must remain committed to providing patients with consistent, face-to-face assistance for a minimum of one year. This long-term commitment allows volunteers to meaningfully contribute to their patients’ lives.
- Sensitivity: The end of life is a very sensitive period of time for patients and their families. Hospice volunteers must remain acutely aware of the environment they are working in and treat every individual with dignity. Hospice volunteers should also be comfortable processing the loss of their patients—a task that can be difficult to do once a strong bond has been formed. Hospice volunteers who have a deep understanding of their unique role and purpose are often best equipped to accept these losses and continue serving other patients effectively.
Outside the patient-volunteer relationship, hospice volunteers must remain conscious of their relationships with other members of the hospice care team. Hospice volunteers can perform caretaking and companionship tasks, but of course all medical-related tasks must be addressed by certified healthcare professionals.
Implementing Hospice Volunteer Training
Hospice volunteer orientation courses help ensure all new volunteers are prepared to provide effective end-of-life support. But the training isn’t over once onboarding ends. For continued success, hospice volunteers are encouraged to participate in ongoing training sessions that deepen their understanding of hospice care.
Through comprehensive, routine volunteer training, hospice volunteers stay up to date on best practices and acquire the skills to support terminally ill patients. Effective hospice volunteer training techniques help volunteers step into the shoes of those they serve, allowing them to cultivate the sincere, compassionate support patients and their families need during this difficult time. Training also equips volunteers with essential information about additional services available to patients, privacy policies, care boundaries, and more.
Provide Unparalleled Hospice Volunteer Support
As America’s elderly population increases, hospice organizations must take steps to ensure they are prepared to continue providing service to all those who need it. But expanding facilities and finding additional employees and volunteers can be challenging, and rising demand can put pressure on organizations to lower their care standards.
Robust hospice training for new and seasoned volunteers alike helps ensure you have a knowledgeable, trusted team of volunteers by your side. By equipping your team of hospice volunteers with comprehensive insights and hospice best practices, you’re preparing them to uphold the high level of care every hospice patient deserves.