By Brenda Boyd

When I arrived in Almonte 37 years ago with my young family, I was soon approached by warm people reaching out to me in friendship. I quickly felt a part of this unique community, and was amazed by how many people volunteered their time and energy to improve the quality of life for so many people.

So my son and I volunteered at the old Fairview Manor for a time, helping at their monthly dances and summer BBQs and I found that I really enjoyed my regular contact with older people.

When I retired from teaching in Ottawa as a high school guidance counsellor, I decided to take the training for End-of-Life Volunteer Visiting offered by the Lanark County Health Unit. It was intense training, a full day a week for 10 weeks! But I learned so much about end-of-life issues for the client and their family, what help volunteers could provide, what the progress of end-of-life diseases looked like, and many, many more important issues that I had never considered.

I have had several treasured clients over a 16-year period, some for a month or two, and others for up to two years. Then I heard about Home Hospice North Lanark having started up in Almonte, and thought how great it would be to be doing this very rewarding work in my home community. So I took their training courses, and was very glad to do so, as many things had changed since my first training, such as our understanding of the many different types of dementia, and how the progression of each type differs. We got a lot of information about all the support systems available to assist people staying at home as long as possible, as well as support offered for the caretakers.

Being with these caring, giving, committed volunteers, Program Coordinators (PC) and BOD members at our monthly meetings always lifted my spirits and gave me energy to remain committed to this work (even as I aged myself!).

And it is “work”! Although the hours are not many that we volunteer visitors give to our clients, plus notetaking, occasional talks with our PC and training sessions at our monthly meetings, the visits with your clients(s) require a fair amount of psychic energy and resilience. You learn how to be deeply connected to your client and their caregiver, yet not be so involved that it overwhelms you and burdens your heart.

The other important part of my work is supporting the caregiver, making sure they’re somehow finding a way to accept some self-care for themselves and not feel guilty, and to inform them of any services and supports that are available for them or their loved one. So often the caregiver just needs to unload their worries and frustrations privately to someone who is not part of their normal life, and that can be me.

When people ask me why I do such work, and why I can spend time with people who are approaching or are in the last stages of their life, I explain that I feel it is a special privilege to be with someone at this challenging time of their life, to hear their stories of their lives, their concerns about their future, their caregiver, and to learn to listen with an open, non-judgmental heart. I feel I get as much, if not more, in return from my client and caregiver, as I give to them. I have also lost the fear of my own death and have come to realize that death is a natural part of life.

This kind of volunteering is not for everyone. You need to be comfortable with sickness and death, with the messy intimacy of knowing someone’s bodily failings, with seeing a caregiver approaching burnout, having your client die whom you’ve become fond of.

However, if you are the right kind of person, you will get a great sense of making a difference in other people’s lives at a very personal level. You give a very special gift to these people, your caring, attention and compassion, and in turn receive gratitude and appreciation in return.