Volunteer Experiences and Stories
Over the years, we have collected stories from various volunteers which illustrate the many special moments volunteer visiting provides. Below are a few of our favorites.
I sat down next to her bed in the darkened room and gently took her hand hoping not to startle her. Still, she called out, “No! No! No!” I stroked her hand and slowly she calmed. She’s been blind for many years and lately her hearing has deteriorated so that she’s now also deaf. Through my presence I hope to offer her the comfort of human contact. On some visits I might comb her hair, or bring a stuffed animal for her to explore with her fingers. Today, however, I just sit and hold her hand.
The Alzheimer’s has altered her brain functioning; it’s difficult to know what her inner world is like. She spends most of her day sleeping but my touch stimulates her. In her wakened state her utterances give me a glimpse into her thoughts and feelings. She seems to be focused on loss. On each of my visits she’s called out for her baby and her mother. Today is the same; “Where’s my baby? I can’t have a baby. I lost my baby. Where’s my mother? I want my mother.”
When it’s time to leave, I stand and put on my coat. As a kind of goodbye gesture, I stop to rub her feet. She’s been dozing and quiet for the remainder of our visit but now she calls out, “My mother! I’ve found my mother! She’s here! My mother’s here!”
Faith in Action (now Brave Heart Volunteers) has made a great difference in my life, and I want to tell you how and why. Somewhat more than a year ago we (my husband and I) brought my mother to live with us here in Sitka. We knew it was time. She has dementia, and had been living in an assisted living facility in Florida. I was her nearest child; and her quality of life and care were clearly deteriorating. We didn’t really know how, living together, her daily experience of life would improve, but we knew it was possible.
As we began our life together, it became apparent that it wasn’t prudent or caring for us to leave my mother alone. Her sense of well-being, as well as her physical well-being were at risk if companionship and a steady helping hand were absent. We began looking for compassionate capable people who could come into our home to spell us so that we could get a break, accomplish necessary chores, and maintain balance in our lives. How I longed for a point of contact and network of people who could help us learn how best to support and care for my mom, and at the same time support and care for ourselves!
At the time all of this began for us, Sitka’s Faith in Action was still preparing to begin direct volunteer respite services. As soon as I learned that SFIA was beginning direct services last January, I put in a call to Auriella, the Program Director, for help! And in fact, out of that first call came the special weekly visits my mom has received since, first from volunteer Christine Littlefield, and then over the summer while Chris was working fulltime, from another volunteer, Ruth Roth. These people bring such light, and such a spirit of sensitive caring, each in their own way, and it is something for which I can never repay them. All I can do is my best to pass on that spirit of caring and openness to the possibilities that can come when we are fully present in companionship with someone. This has lead me to my present involvements with SFIA.
I was also desperate for emotional support and mentoring from other family caregivers who had personal experience with the conundrums that Alzheimer’s and other dementia present. So I began reaching out in the community and to contacts with the Juneau Alzheimer’s support group to somehow form a caregivers support group here in town. Step by step, oh so slowly it seemed at the time, a sequence of development came together that resulted in the support group start up in the spring of 2003. That too has become a reality with the assistance of a dedicated Board and the Program Director’s continual support, creativity and openness to the possibilities we can accomplish together.
Thanks to Sitka’s Faith in Action for the many contributions to the quality of my life, and for the ways in which the organization is enriching the lives of others here in Sitka.
Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time with Elena at the end of her life. Elena had been diagnosed with lung cancer and her disease was progressing rapidly. She was also suffering from dementia, so I was unsure how much she understood about “the dying process.” Elena had moved to Sitka from up north, and had no family or friends left. Living at the Pioneer Home, she was known as an independent type – a real pioneer who enjoyed her solitude. I mostly just sat with Elena while she drifted in and out of sleep – preparing for her eventual journey to the other side. I’d ask her how she was doing, and with a puzzled expression Elena would answer, “I don’t know.” Although we exchanged very few actual words, we connected through smiles and touch. She seemed pleased to see me sitting there when she woke up, even though she didn’t know who I was.
According to the Northstar neighborhood staff where Elena resided at the Pioneers’ Home, Elena died peacefully on November 24th, 2002. She received attentive and compassionate care. True to her spirit of independence, she slipped away alone.
Elena’s death reminds me of the “need to allow.” She taught me the importance of allowing for non-verbal communication with another human being, of allowing the silence, and allowing for time to just be together with no agenda. She also taught me not to force a discussion about dying or salvation, to satisfy my own needs. With Elena I just sat, tried to be present, and reminded myself to just simply “allow.”
Written with permission from Georgina Dapcevich, Pioneers’ Home Director, by Jamie Panzero, a former Sitkan with RN training and experience in Hospice Care.
My Dad moved to Sitka in 1998, to be closer to my family and me. He was already suffering from health issues that eventually caused his death. He lived in his own apartment and I visited him there regularly. As Dad’s health declined I became increasingly concerned about him living on his own. He enjoyed his independence and his own space, and habits. He was under the care of a local doctor, who was supportive of our efforts to keep him at home. During the last months of his life, my sister took time from her job and flew up to stay with him while I was out of town, and then my brother was able to move in with him the last weeks of his life. He died peacefully at home with my brother and I at his bedside. During this time I was juggling my own family life, and multiple duties, all while trying to manage and take care of my Dad’s decline. At the time BHV and its network of compassionate support did not exist. Had this service been available at the time it would have been a welcome relief to share some of the challenge of caring for him, and I would not have felt so isolated.
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