Hospice clients frequently choose to float into rest to the calming sounds of Tom Litteral’s Native American flute. Surprisingly, one client didn’t want to simply listen to the flute — she wanted to learn to play.
This favorite memory from Litteral’s experience as a hospice volunteer illustrates the meaning of hospice: helping people live the best they can in the here and now.
“Yes, we are talking about end of life,” Litteral explained. “But right now, in this moment, we are talking about what you need to do for yourself and your loved ones.”
Litteral is one of 20 volunteers with the Hospice and Palliative Care program at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association. Hospice team members collaborate to help individuals facing a terminal diagnosis to get their affairs in order and find peace and comfort in their final days.
Hospice care can be delivered by a family member in a person’s home, by hospice care professionals and volunteers at the Rollingstone Respite House in Steamboat Springs, or both. One client living in a remote area recently stayed at Rollingstone Respite House during the day while her husband/caregiver worked. The Respite House is not a licensed medical facility, but it offers a day care option for families who cannot care for their loved ones full time.
Hospice support also is available for hospitalized patients and skilled nursing facility residents. Hospice staff and volunteers offer emotional support to facility staff, as well as clients and families.
The hospice team includes nurses, who manage clients’ pain and symptoms, and nursing assistants, who assist with bathing and other personal care. Hospice social workers help clients and families organize documents and details that can feel overwhelming.
Spiritual counselors aid clients in reconnecting with their faith or reflecting on their lives. Bereavement staff also is available to counsel families for more than a year after the death of a loved one.
Hospice volunteers help clients with nonclinical needs, such as running errands, cooking, grocery shopping or simply holding their hand and offering a willing ear. Everything is confidential.
“Sometimes the honesty of a conversation with a stranger is extremely valuable,” Litteral said.
Hospice staff matches each client with the best volunteer to help meet a client’s needs, but the client and his or her family determine who is there to help at the end of life. Hospice staff focuses on building trust with the client and family. Trust adds to the depth and quality of a client’s experience while allowing his or her family peace of mind to work or attend to other needs, Litteral said.
The inherent sincerity and candor of focusing on life in the present and helping fulfill a person’s wishes can be a very special experience for volunteers as well as clients and their families.
“It’s real — there’s a lot of laughter and a few tears here and there — there’s no faking it,” Litteral said.
Hospice begins with a doctor’s referral for a person who has a life expectancy of nine months or less. Hospice staff initially consults with the family to evaluate how the program can meet their needs.
The sooner a client and his or her family request hospice services, the better the experience, Litteral said. Staff and volunteers need time to develop trusting bonds with clients and help them resolve unfinished life matters.
The VNA Hospice and Palliative Care program operates in Routt and Moffat counties. Medicare and Medicaid cover most hospice costs. Hospice information is available by calling Katy Thiel at 970-871-7628.
Tamera Manzanares is a community outreach specialist for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.