The Power of Presence: How Volunteers Change the Lives of Palliative Care Patients

Its a real honour for the patients and the families to allow us to be part of that journey because its a very difficult one.

Areti Anastassopoulos, a registered nurse at the JGH

When you walk into the palliative care unit of the Jewish General Hospital, one of the first things that strike you is the peacefulness. In all other wards, you hear constant beeping, loud voices, and a noise level that sometimes borders on aggressive.

In comparison, a palliative care unit is almost quiet, even in an acute care hospital like the JGH.

Although there can be a lot of sadness and tears, there is also a lot of life and laughter.

And volunteers play an essential part.

For the staff, its important to know that friendly visitors are available to speak to patients. When the need arises, they know they can ask a volunteer.

Volunteers are an integral part of the philosophy of palliative care. They offer a tremendous amount of comfort to the patients and much relief to the staff.

— Vivian, a palliative care social worker at JGH

Friends and family are not always available. So if a person in palliative care feels lonely or needs help to feed themselves, having a volunteer ready to help contributes immensely to their well-being.

Volunteers are indispensable and work closely with the staff to support people in their care. They can do activities that staff are not always available to do, such as feeding, sitting with patients, talking with the families, and introducing them to the unit.

Through their training, volunteers learn how to talk to patients, what to say, and what not to say. Quickly, they become a familiar and non-threatening presence in the lives of the patients and their families.

When family members cant be present because of their obligations at home or work, knowing someone is available to spend time with their loved ones gives them peace of mind.

The hallway of the JGH palliatve care unit

During COVID, everyone felt the loss of volunteers acutely.

When volunteers werent allowed to come because of COVID, says Areti Anastassopoulos, a registered nurse working in the palliative care unit of the JGH, we realized how important they are for our patients well-being and how they add to their quality of life.

From Aretis experience, she finds that few people are inclined to work in a palliative care unit. When she explains what she does, a comment she often hears is, How do you do it? I could never work in such an environment. Its so sad.

Most people dont realize the emphasis is on the quality of life—not on death. And that can take many forms.

The staff at the JGH have arranged weddings, movie nights for family members and patients, and Valentines Day dates for a patient and her boyfriend.

One time, a young lady wanted to have a movie night with her friends, recalls Arieti. Our head nurse set up the whole family room with a popcorn machine and the movie that played on the screen. It was just fantastic.

Working in a palliative care unit is not easy and can take an emotional toll. When patients come, most of them know they will finish their days there. Yet, despite what seems to be a bleak outcome, volunteers want to return.

When my daughter started volunteering here at a young age, I didnt know how she would fare. But after one shift, she came home, and she was glowing, says Areti. She was so happy to provide some comfort to them because its not easy to care for the dying.

A painting by Arieti’s daughter

If you would like to join our team, we are always looking for great volunteers. Contact us today.

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