Hospice Volunteers: How to Become One & Duties

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

You may not know that hospice companies use volunteers to serve their overall philosophy of providing comfort care at the end of life. Medicare requires that 5 % of all care of a hospice patient be delivered by a hospice volunteer.

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There are several reasons why Medicare requires volunteers as part of patient care. Reimbursement from Medicare and other insurance applies to skilled care offered by nurses and aides under the supervision of a medical director.

Family and patient needs are often incompatible with what Medicare will pay for. Therefore using the skills and talents of volunteers can help support the family and patient in ways that the traditional hospice staff may not be able to do. Volunteers are an extension of the professional hospice staff and are an integral part of taking care of someone at the end of life. 

What Does a Hospice Volunteer Typically Do?

Hospice volunteers can do many things, but they don’t have unlimited time. Hospice companies will pair hospice volunteers with the patient and family needs. Sometimes families don’t know what they need, and the hospice nurse will offer suggestions. This list of what a hospice volunteer typically does is a sample of the valuable and compassionate services hospice volunteers provide. 

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Massage therapy

Massage is a vital part of hospice volunteer work. Massage for people at the end of life can:

  • Reduce pain and tension
  • Improve circulation, which can help with breathing
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Improve mood and mental clarity
  • Help with sleep

Music therapy

Music therapy can involve a volunteer playing an instrument, singing, or facilitating the listening of the patient’s favorite music. The benefits include:

  • Improvement in mood
  • Reduction in feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Relaxation and pain relief
  • Helps with feelings of anxiety and depression

Companionship

Most families do not realize that hospice is not round-the-clock care. At the end of life, there could be long periods when your loved one is alone. Companionship means different things to different people, but here are some of the valuable services a hospice volunteer can offer:

  • Writing letters or cards to friends and relatives
  • Reading aloud
  • Talking about subjects the patient is interested in
  • Walk with the patient if they can do so
  • Assist with providing refreshments or meals
  • Providing transportation
  • Watch tv or movies together
  • Play games

Pet therapy

Pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy is a specialized service that uses trained animals to provide comfort and companionship to people in all kinds of settings, not just hospice. For patients at the end of life, pet therapy can provide the following:

  • Releases endorphins which Improve mood and a reduces pain
  • A decrease in stress and anxiety
  • Pets encourage communication and reduce boredom

Other support services

Families can come under significant stress while taking care of a loved one who is dying. Hospice volunteers can offer some relief by:

  • Shopping and light housekeeping
  • Cooking meals
  • Care for a patient’s pet
  • Sorting through and responding to mail

Why Do People Become Hospice Volunteers?

People become hospice volunteers for many reasons. Some people are drawn to jobs that deal with death because they believe that this transition and coping with grief and loss is as essential as any other part of life. Other reasons people choose to become hospice volunteers:

  • Many people who become hospice volunteers have experienced hospice for a loved one and want to give back.
  • Hospice volunteers desire to honor and support patients and families during one of the most emotional transitions anyone will go through.
  • Hospice volunteers may have special skills like massage or music therapy that support patients and families at the end of life.
  • Volunteers report that working in hospice gives them a sense of purpose.

Are There Any Special Requirements or Qualifications to Become a Hospice Volunteer?

Hospice volunteers must go through extensive training before working with patients and their families. Requirements and qualifications can be viewed in two ways. One is what the hospice company requires, and the other is the qualifications it takes to be a good hospice volunteer.

Hospice company requirements

  • Most hospice companies require that their volunteers be over the age of 18 or 21.
  • Hospice volunteers undergo a background check.
  • Most companies require a valid driver’s license.
  • Medicare requires that the hospice company meet the following conditions of volunteer participation:
    1. A hospice must provide orientation about hospice philosophy to all employees (volunteers) and contracted staff that have patient and family contact. 
    2. A hospice must provide an initial orientation for each employee (volunteer) that addresses the employee’s (volunteer’s) specific job duties. A hospice must assess the skills and competence of all individual ls furnishing care, including volunteers furnishing services, and, as necessary, provide in-service training and education programs where required. 
    3. The hospice must have written policies and procedures describing its method(s) of assessment of competency and maintain a written description of the in-service training provided during the previous 12 months.

(Taken from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.)

Hospice volunteer qualities

Hospice volunteers generally possess some similar qualities that make a good hospice volunteer. You don’t necessarily have to have skills like massage, music, or pet therapy to make an excellent volunteer.

Listening skills

As a hospice volunteer, it is important to allow patients and families to process their grief and do a life review. A good hospice volunteer knows when to listen and when to talk. Hospice patients often need to express their fears and anxieties about dying. Sometimes that is easier with a volunteer than with a family member.

Understanding death and grief

How people experience death and grief is unique to each individual and their family. Cultural and religious differences should be respected and appreciated. Ultimately this means putting aside your own opinions and belief systems to respect the patient’s process. 

Comfort level with people who need different kinds of assistance

Hospice volunteering is probably not for the faint of heart. Patients may be very ill and eventually can’t swallow or eat. At the end of life, many patients have continence and bowel needs, assistance with eating, and other activities of daily living.

Patient privacy

Privacy and protecting a patient’s confidentiality are critical to establishing trust. Federal law prohibits anyone who doesn’t have the legal authority to share health and other personal information with anyone else.

Personal boundaries

Being aware of personal boundaries as a hospice volunteer entails keeping your relationship warm and caring but professional. A hospice volunteer is not a member of the family. Getting too close to a patient can make it difficult to detach once the patient has died. Personal boundaries also mean not sharing too much of your personal life with a patient or family. 

The ability to work with a team

A hospice volunteer is part of a team including the medical director, nurse, aides, and chaplain services. A hospice team provides individualized care to each patient after assessing their needs and goals at the end of life. Everyone works together to make the experience as comfortable and peaceful as possible.

Understand the four levels of hospice care

With changing medical conditions and the environment comes a change in needs. As a hospice volunteer, you will want to respond to the evolving nature of end-of-life care.The four levels of hospice care help you as a volunteer anticipate the changing condition of your patients.

Do You Get Paid to Become a Hospice Volunteer?

Hospice volunteers generally do not get paid, but they may get mileage reimbursement. However, a full-time hospice coordinator can be a paid employee with a hospice company.

How Can Hospice Volunteers Deal With Death, Terminal Illness, and or Sadness?

Dealing with death and terminal illness will naturally cause sadness. That is normal. As a hospice volunteer, you will see death many times over, and for you to be fully present for each patient, you have to care for yourself. 

  • Express your feelings to other members of the hospice team.
  • Take care of yourself physically and emotionally.
  • Take a break from volunteering if you need it and if the job is too stressful, reconsider being a hospice volunteer.
  • Talk with a therapist if you have feelings of anxiety or depression.
  • Reflect on the blessings in your own life and have gratitude each day.

How to Become a Hospice Volunteer

If you are thinking about becoming a hospice volunteer, there are several steps to ensure your success, starting with honest self-reflection. Each hospice agency may vary in what training and time commitment they require.

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Self-evaluation of your feelings about death

Good hospice volunteers have a solid understanding and acceptance of their feelings about death. Hospice volunteers can put aside their own beliefs and show unconditional regard for the different views of others. People who are uncomfortable with death or dying may not be a good fit for hospice volunteering. If you have recently lost a loved one, it may be best to wait some time before jumping into volunteering. 

Time requirement

Everyone has a life to attend to. You need to have the time to devote to your family and other responsibilities. Pre-determining the time you can commit to being a hospice volunteer will help you avoid taking on too much. Assess your current stress level and whether a hospice volunteer position is wise.

Choose a hospice company to volunteer for

Hospice companies are not all the same. Some are locally owned, and others are part of large corporations. One is not necessarily better than the other, but you might have a preference. You may choose a company you had personal experience with or one that someone else recommends. It might even be advisable to interview several hospice companies to learn about their company culture, training, and expectations.

Attend training and orientation

Before attending training and orientation, you will most likely need to undergo a background screening. Once you pass that, the hospice company will schedule you for training. If you feel that the training is inadequate, take the time to request answers to your questions or find additional education online.

The Duties and Responsibilities of a Hospice Volunteer

Becoming part of a hospice team through volunteering is as essential as all hospice's other services. Patients and families need all of the comfort they can get at the end of life. Hospice volunteers offer empathetic and compassionate care that meets the unique needs of each individual.

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