In this reflection from a current staff member and former volunteer at Hospice Care Plus, we learn that sometimes, even family members of hospice patients have important bucket-list items.
I became acquainted with hospice as a volunteer while in college. My first assignment was with an older couple I’ll call Mr. and Mrs. C. I was asked to visit them weekly to give Mr. C some company and Mrs. C a brief break.
On my first visit, Mrs. C asked me to sit with her husband while she went to do laundry. I sat there, full of the sense of immortality young people have, and realized how quickly it can all be taken away. Yet, there was something very hopeful in what I saw. I saw a man in his own living room, being cared for by his wife of 52 years. The wall next to his bed was filled with photographs from Mr. and Mrs. C’s life together. I saw him as a young man with his parents, as a brand new husband and then brand new father, as a smitten grandpa, and then as a comfortably older gentleman with his arms around his wife.
I saw a life and a person—not a patient.
When Mrs. C came back, she leaned over him, kissed him on the forehead, and said, “I’m back, Daddy.” He broke into a huge smile and held her to him for a bit. I sat a little uncomfortably, trying to pretend I wasn’t misty-eyed.
This, I thought—this is what it should be like in the last months of life.
Mr. C died peacefully, at home, about two months after that visit. I continued to see Mrs. C as part of hospice’s bereavement program, which offers grief support after a loss. We became fast friends, and I quickly learned that she was anxious about life now that she was alone.
Mr. C always paid the bills and balanced the checkbook. He was also their driver. So, with Mr. C gone and their children far away, Mrs. C felt lost and helpless. She couldn’t get a handle on the whole checkbook business, and she felt very limited by not being able to drive. We talked about these issues each visit, when I’d come to take her to the grocery store.
One week, after we shopped and returned to the car, I asked Mrs. C if she’d like to learn to drive. She was frightened by the prospect and insisted she didn’t want to risk harming my car. I assured her that I had faith it would be okay. She got behind the wheel of that car in the grocery store parking lot, and spent 10 minutes learning about the pedals and the next 10 minutes weaving in and out of parking lot lanes.
We continued this for weeks, until, one fall day, she went for her road test and passed. We celebrated by letting her drive me to the grocery store, where she insisted on buying me a box of cookies. We ate the whole thing on the way back to her house.
Over time, we also worked together to master the art of the checkbook. I stayed in touch with Mrs. C for more than 10 years. I called to tell her all about the boyfriend I was sure would become my husband (he did). When we had our first child, I paid her a visit. When I moved out of state, we wrote letters. When I learned she passed away peacefully at home one morning, I cried, got in my car, drove to Kroger’s for a box of cookies, and ate the whole box in her memory.
Mr. and Mrs. C’s experience convinced me that hospice care is essential to the best quality of life in the last months—so respectful of dignity, of relationships, of hopes and dreams. They also taught me that our dreams change when life hangs in the balance. For them and for her, the dream was to share a life together, at home, until the last moment, and then to learn how to go on—independently, behind your own wheel—when you suddenly find yourself all alone in the driver’s seat.