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A rewarding experience for volunteers

“I could feel his spirit coming back with each word I read.”

Helen Buccella-Costa recalls a particular gentleman who had enjoyed an extremely full life. By the time she met him he was angry over his body’s betrayal, which had left him bedridden, with a fading ability to communicate. As an Arbor Hospice volunteer, Buccella-Costa was committed to helping this patient make the most of his days as she joined him on his end-of-life journey.

“He did not want to talk,” Buccella-Costa recalls of their initial visits. Looking for a way to connect, she pulled a volume from the many poetry books that packed his shelves, ultimately realizing that it was one her patient had penned. He beamed as she read aloud the prose that he had authored years prior.

“It felt like I was giving him back to himself,” she explains of the bond that was born.

Buccella-Costa’s experience repeats itself daily across Lower Michigan as volunteers for Arbor and Hospice of Michigan, which joined forces in 2016, form meaningful connections with patients at a difficult time in their lives. Volunteers are vital in maximizing quality of life, a primary goal of the plans of care that both nonprofit agencies develop for the nearly 1,900 patients they serve daily.

“Our volunteers are just as important in delivering patient care as our clinical team members,” Alana Knoppow, MSW, volunteer program manager for HOM and Arbor, said. Working in tandem with nursing, social work, spiritual and other staff, volunteers note new or advancing symptoms during patient visits that they share with the team for immediate intervention.

But their greatest impact comes from the friendships they forge with those that fate has brought into their lives.

Knoppow recounts another volunteer’s efforts to connect with a non-verbal patient. The volunteer learned from the woman’s daughter that she had always enjoyed glamour and shopping. As the woman was immobile, the volunteer delighted the patient by bringing the shopping to her, skimming through fashion catalogues during their visits. The volunteer’s ingenuity ensured the woman could continue “doing her favorite things within her ability,” Knoppow said.

Sometimes relationships get off to a rocky start, but sympathizing with the patient’s pain and simply persevering helps establish a connection. Buccella-Costa, who often visits patients accompanied by Alpine, Arbor’s therapy dog, remembers her first meeting with a patient who was withdrawn and lashed out at her upon entering the room with Alpine in tow. Buccella-Costa quickly retreated several steps toward the door before turning around. Coming closer to the woman and acknowledging her feelings, her patient immediately softened. “She looked up and said ‘thank you, dear.'”

HOM and Arbor volunteers often bond with their patients over shared interests and experiences. An avid music fan, Buccella-Costa shared favorite recordings with a patient who enjoyed the blues. Both nonprofits count military veterans among their volunteer forces, pairing them with veteran patients. Doing a little research before each first visit, one volunteer finds a news article or other material specific to the era or branch of his patient’s service to spark conversation.

Volunteers also form bonds with caregivers. “Families are every bit as important,” says Buccella-Costa.

HOM and Arbor offer caregiver relief visits, one time sending a volunteer to sit with a patient so the caregiver could garden in her yard. “The caregiver never did garden,” Knoppow said laughingly. “The three of them sat and chatted.”

The relationships volunteers nurture with caregivers can also boosts patients’ well-being. “When a patient can see their loved ones having a few moments of life, it gives them relief and happiness,” Buccella-Costa said. She can still describe the joy she saw on a father’s face as he watched his four children play with Alpine.

HOM and Arbor continually welcome new volunteers, 18 and older. Most often, volunteers are matched with one patient within the community at a time and are encouraged to make weekly visits. In addition to patient care, volunteers can choose to provide office and event assistance. HOM and Arbor prepare volunteers to serve through interviews and a comprehensive orientation process. For more, visit www.hom.org or www.arborhospice.org.

“I’ve met people I never would have interacted with in my life,” Buccella-Costa said. “I carry all their spirits with me.”