116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
HIAWATHA — On a cold Friday at the Dennis and Donna Oldorf Hospice House of Mercy, Olivia Kennedy, 98, was having a difficult day.
With some unsettling news to contend with, volunteer Elizabeth Ray pours the native Briton a cup of Earl Grey tea to warm the body and simply listens. A hospice volunteer for several years, she’s mastered the latter skill that’s key for the guests passing through the hospice home.
That skill is particularly tested with Kennedy, who knows how to chat up a storm. In the first time meeting you, she’ll eagerly narrate her journey to Iowa in 1947 or how her family survived the Great Depression and World War II.
But with utter patience through each slow step down the hallway and each rabbit trail in Kennedy’s stories, Ray doesn’t blunt the questions with her responses. Rather, she asks even more leading questions, curious to learn more.
With a listening ear, a smiling eye above the mask, empathy in the voice and a light touch, when permitted, dozens of local hospice volunteers like Ray make companionship more than the act of keeping someone company.
What volunteers do
Hospice administrators and coordinators say their volunteers are the backbone of the hospice care in many ways, bringing to patients undivided attention that medical staff can’t always dedicate.
Some cook, some clean and some do behind-the-scenes work that makes everything run smoothly. But the ones who sit by patients’ sides have perhaps the biggest job of all: listening to their stories.
“We’re not just there to give them their medicine. We care about their life and what contributions they made to our community,” said Susie Corbin-Muir, a volunteer coordinator at The Bird House Hospice Home in Iowa City. “It makes them feel valued.”
Whether a volunteer is there for respite assistance or companionship in their final hours, their listening skills aren’t an act of charity — they’re an act of compassion that volunteers relish in providing.
“Most of the time, it’s life review,” said Kurt Rogahn, 68, who has been a volunteer with UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids since 2005. “I love drawing out people’s stories. … Very often I’m a new ear for old stories.”
With a bag of tricks honed as a Gazette journalist over 27 years, he always has a few simple questions ready to lead the person into life stories that help them take stock of their experience, examine their accomplishments, reconcile their mistakes and confront their mortality.
Sometimes, they speak aloud their deepest, darkest secrets.
“One of my patients, years ago, started talking about how his wife had given birth to a child outside of marriage before they had met. The wife and her firstborn son reconnected,” Rogahn said. “This wasn’t a story he normally told people. It was a chance for him to work things out.”
Other times, those in hospice are an encyclopedia of hobbies ready to give a presentation to a captive audience. In her first year volunteering, Ray learned the entire history of Allis-Chalmers orange tractors during a visit with a passionate farmer. But more than that, she gave a man in decline a chance to be in his element.
Instilled with the right skills as a child by her mother, Ray, 62, has used her retirement to be a meaningful presence for others.
“My passion really is for older people at the end of their life because this society is so youth-oriented and we tend to dismiss older people,” she said. “We see older people and don’t see the stories behind them.”
But when fun stories turn into anxieties and concerns, Ray has learned that care and comfort is not about empty consolation or a quick dismissal with “there, there.” It’s about being a sounding board, even when you don’t know the answer.
“We don’t want (others) to dismiss our feelings. We don’t know if it’ll be OK,” Ray said. “It’s OK to sit there and say ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m a safe place to talk about your feelings.’”
Honoring others is about acknowledging where they are and what they’re feeling that day with respect and dignity.
It’s more than emotional support, though. Volunteers, who are required by law to complete at least 14 hours of training, use the stories they hear to evaluate when someone needs a spiritual adviser or to document when their condition is worsening. When details change in stories told more than once, it can be a sign that someone is declining, Rogahn said.
Why volunteers choose hospice
“When I tell people I’m a volunteer for hospice or that I work for hospice, people get a solemn look and say ‘that must be a very hard thing,’” said Rogahn, who coordinated hospice volunteers at UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids from 2017 to December 2020. “For me, it’s one of the most rewarding and interesting things I’ve done.”
With the chance to exercise a journalist’s mentality, he enjoys facilitating conversations for those more comfortable talking about the past by asking what their first car was or how they met their spouse.
Though Rogahn was never a follower of sports, it was an experience with a retired high school coach with dementia that keeps him volunteering. Rogahn would read The Gazette’s sports stories and talk about the man’s football-playing days in Michigan. The man’s wife was reluctant to visit the man she no longer recognized.
“One of the hospice aids sent a message to me that he can’t remember the names of family members, but he remembers that he has a friend named Kurt who comes to visit him each week,” Rogahn said. “That brings a tear to my eye to this day. That I had that much effect on one person — that’s why I’m a hospice volunteer.”
Though many things in life don’t have tangible results, hospice volunteers are rewarded for their efforts in real time.
“I consider them short-term friendships,” Ray said. “I come away feeling better.”
In a death-averse society, she even treasures the opportunities to be with someone in their final hours.
“It’s almost sacred to be invited in at such a special time in somebody’s life when they’re getting ready to pass from this life to the next,” she said.
Administrators say that volunteers bring a new meaning to hospice, a word that can be scary to some.
“Volunteers provide a witness to these people at the end of life,” said Teresa Coker, director of hospice and palliative care at Mercy Cedar Rapids. “They know they’re being seen.”
How the pandemic has changed things
Though many hospice programs have bounced back from the volunteer restrictions at the beginning of the pandemic, there are things that may never be the same again.
In some programs, volunteers try to maintain their distance by sitting a few feet farther than they usually would. In Mercy’s program, volunteers can no longer give the reassuring hug or touch on the hand that communicates words that can’t be articulated.
Touch and hearing are the last things to go, volunteers said. So now, volunteers rely more on their voices, undeterred by their masks.
And with COVID-19 now a part of life, the vigilance of staying away from the omnipresent virus has taken a toll on some volunteers.
“It’s another level of stress when you worry about every sniffle and sneeze you have,” Corbin-Muir said.
All of the local programs surveyed by The Gazette have seen a reduction in volunteers, many of whom are retirees. Mercy’s hospice volunteer force went from about 120 to 91. UnityPoint’s was “decimated” by about half in the first year of the pandemic, Rogahn said.
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