When asked to summarize my feelings towards my hospice experience in a poem or in a few sentences, this is what came to my mind:
While hospice, in the sense of time, is the precursor to death, hospice is a moment to celebrate life, a time to reflect, remember or forget, grieve, say goodbye. It is an often opportunity to regain a sense of self after lengthy, invasive, painful treatments that can cause one to lose oneself. Hospice patients wish to be treated as the living, not as the dying.
In this statement, I hoped to convey that my experience as a hospice volunteer has, largely, not been focused on the aspect of hospice that is dying. Rather, my visits with patients have been fairly lighthearted, overall, and have focused on pleasant memories and casual conversations. I think that, at its core, this is what hospice is truly about.
I have not had much previous experience interacting with elderly people or with hospice. My mother’s mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 48, when my mom was about to enter college, and her father, a former World War II pilot, died a few years later while in a coma resulting from a plane crash. My father’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when I was young and passed away when I was 9, and my father’s mother died when I was 14 from a variety of causes. Neither of the grandparents who I had known in my life experienced hospice, and, as a result, my memories of their deaths felt very chaotic and rushed. I did not feel like I had time to say goodbye to them on their own terms.
In many ways, my interactions with my two hospice patients have felt like conversations that I might have shared with my own grandparents had they been alive today. When we talk, we joke and laugh, share stories and experiences. My first patient was very proud of his minor-league baseball career in the South Pacific when he was in the service. Every week, we would talk about how he loved to go swimming in the clear water that couldn’t be found in the US and how the people there were so welcoming to him. It was clearly a highlight of his life and I really enjoyed being able to listen to his memories of his time there. I would try to talk to him about some of his other favorite sports, including football and basketball, and he would laugh at my lack of knowledge in both fields.
While I have witnessed some setbacks in my patients’ conditions, I have been amazed by their continued positivity. Just this past week, I went to visit my current patient and was asked to come back another time, not because she didn’t want me there, but because she thought it would be more worthwhile for me to visit her when she was not as tired. Later this week, when I returned to visit again, she told me about her latest fall. She simply said that sometimes things like that happen but that God looks out for her. In January, my first patient contracted shingles, and rather than fixate on the discomfort he had been feeling from the rashes on his arms, he asked me about how my winter vacation had been and whether or not I had found a job for next year (which I had!).
At least with the two patients I have interacted with, I have found that they prefer to talk about their pasts, their families or even the people they eat lunch with in the dining room above complaining or fixating on death. They have been incredibly positive, and to me, that is a sign of a life well lived.