What Can Volunteering in a Palliative Care Unit Bring to Your Life?

The volunteers are extraordinary and do a lot of good for those who are ill. I was signed up to be moved elsewhere but asked to remain here.

  — A patient in the palliative care unit of the Jewish General Hospital

Daria has volunteered at the JGH palliative care unit for about three years. Her primary role is to provide friendly visits, comfort care, and company to patients and their families. She also offers services like foot and hand massages and sometimes helps feed patients who struggle to eat.

The experience has been significant.

“It’s a special place, and I don’t say that lightly,” she says. “I can offer them some ice cream, give them a massage, or hold a family member’s hand. I think it makes a big difference. People trust me. It’s really a unique and special feeling.”

It’s her first experience in cancer care but not her first experience as a volunteer. She previously volunteered at an animal shelter. And while it might seem far removed from palliative care, there is a close link.

The palliative care unit offers animal therapy with three dogs that come with their owners and visit patients. These dogs help reduce anxiety and depression. They help patients, family members, and the medical team to relax. They are cute and sweet, and everyone is excited when they arrive.

Picture of Claudia and Bear walking in the hallways of the palliative care unit of the JGH
Claudia and Bear visit patients at the palliative care unit of the JGH

But back to the human volunteers.

Rifka Hanfling, the volunteer coordinator at the JGH palliative care unit, explains that volunteers must undergo special training to work there.

“They receive a six-week training program at McGill University,” she says, “where they learn about topics related to grief, death, palliative care patients, their families, communication, and more. After completing this training, they receive a certificate that allows them to work in any palliative care unit in the CIUSS (Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux ).”

Besides the training at McGill, volunteers undergo a 12-week training program in the palliative care unit. During these 12 weeks, they are paired with an experienced volunteer. They observe how to interact with patients, family members, and the team. They also learn to provide foot massages if they wish to do so.

Rifka also implemented virtual reality therapy during her social work internship. The videos used in the therapy were made at the request of patients. They wanted to revisit places they had previously visited or visit places they had always wanted to see. Some patients also requested certain activities.

“Some people asked to race a motorcycle, take a walk in nature, or ski,” she explains. “Virtual reality goggles let them experience these activities and improves their quality of life.”

She emphasizes that everyone in the unit views people in palliative care as unique individuals, not just as patients.

As for Daria, she keeps returning to the palliative care unit because she feels it’s a special place where she is trusted with access to vulnerable populations.

“Patients and their families can be in various emotional states, from despair to happiness,” she explains. “I get to be there for them through it all.”

Daria also facilitates a grief support group called Mourning Cafe over Zoom. There, she meets with people at different stages of the grieving process. After their loved one passes, they experience grief, sadness, and many other aftereffects. The support group gives them a safe space to share, whether they feel great because it’s a beautiful day or they feel terrible because it’s a significant anniversary.

The initial impression of palliative care is that it’s depressing. But Daria finds that it spans the entire spectrum of human experience. She believes that her presence and help make a big difference in the lives of patients and their families. That makes her work truly special and unique.

aquarium in the JGH palliative care unit's family room
The aquarium in the family room of the palliative care unit of the JGH

She wanted to do this work because she didn’t have the chance to be with her grandparents when they were nearing the end of their lives. Now, she gets to pay it forward by being with other people’s grandparents, parents, and siblings.

Volunteering in the unit has taught her a lot and brought her out of herself. Being able to ask patients and their families about their well-being and offer support brings her a sense of meaning and spiritual satisfaction, even though she isn’t religious.

“The good I bring to others is immediately reflected in their reactions,” she says. “It creates a sense of spirituality that is both gratifying and difficult to describe in words.”

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

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