“While the other person is speaking, I want you to see how little you can do. Simply be present in the moment,” urges Mike P. As VNSNY Hospice’s Manager of Volunteer Training, Mike is guiding the newest group of VNSNY Hospice volunteers through some role-playing exercises. The group is practicing what’s known as “active listening”—which, despite the name, means staying as inactive as possible.
“We’re all accustomed to sending signals that show we’re listening to the other person, like nodding our heads or making reassuring sounds,” says Mike. “But if you ask the person who is speaking, they actually feel the other person is more present when they aren’t interrupting in this fashion, but instead are simply sitting still and listening. The important thing we emphasize to volunteers is that being who you are is enough.”
Being fully present and attentive to the other person as they’re sharing their thoughts is one of the key skills that VNSNY’s hospice volunteers are taught. “Hospice volunteers’ job is to provide companionship to patients,” explains Mike. “That can include many things—listening to music or reading a book together, putting together photographs or life memories, or even a simple act like watering plants. Most of all, though, it means being a calming presence.”
VNSNY trains about 100 hospice volunteers each year, taking them through a 12-hour curriculum stretched over a number of days, as they learn what is involved in providing fellowship and emotional comfort for people who are approaching the end of life. Besides practicing listening skills, the volunteers rehearse how to respond to difficult situations, such as a patient who has run out of their medications, or who expresses a wish to reach out to an estranged family member. Hospice volunteer training also includes a segment teaching cultural sensitivity to the needs and concerns of LGBT patients, using a curriculum from SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders).
The training also emphasizes maintaining boundaries and practicing self-care. “Volunteers are typically placed with patients who are experiencing some kind of social pain, such as loneliness or isolation,” says Mike. “The goal is to fill that social gap for a short period of time and take away some of that pain. It’s challenging work.”
Volunteers are matched carefully with patients, based on the judgment of VNSNY’s four volunteer managers. Mike stresses that VNSNY Hospice and Palliative Care is always open to new volunteers, especially those with special skills such as fluency in Spanish or other non-English languages, or who engage in pet therapy. The most important skill of all, though, is a willingness to share precious time in the closest of settings. “This is not ordinary volunteering,” says Mike. “It involves very personal and intimate work—and not everyone can do it.”