Valley Voices

As a hospice volunteer, he did so little but gained so much

Larry Patten
Larry Patten Contributed

When I volunteered for Hinds Hospice, I did nothing.

Well, that’s not correct since I once finished several chapters in the book I was reading.

I also quietly eased down the home’s hallway to listen to the patient’s breathing. I was cautioned that he would always say he was fine or didn’t need anything, even if he wasn’t fine and had needs. Best to listen carefully!

As a hospice volunteer on one of my first assignments, I mostly did that “nothing.” After my training (I’ll mention more about that in a moment), I was good to go. The volunteer doordinator had called, asked if I could visit a patient for an hour or two later in the week. My task? Make sure the patient wasn’t alone. While I sat in the living room, available if “anything” happened, the patient’s weary wife did her grocery shopping.

Larry Patten of Fresno. Courtesy photo Special to The Bee

I read a book. I stood in the hallway and listened. And then I welcomed a patient’s wife home, helped bring the groceries in, and departed. Before leaving, the wife profusely thanked me . . . for nothing.

The patient* died a few weeks later. It was my only visit.

Maybe a month later, I received another request: one of the volunteers couldn’t do their regular weekly visit with a patient*. This fella was by himself for a predictable time during the week and everyone — the family and hospice medical staff — didn’t want him to be alone. Get a volunteer!

I was good to go!

We had a fun afternoon at the home. This particular patient loved to talk, especially about his time during World War II in the Army Air Corps as a B-24 pilot.

Bad news: he was hard of hearing.

Disappointing news: several of his previous volunteers were always keen to talk but 1) he sometimes couldn’t hear them and 2) they didn’t know much about World War II.

Good news! I’m loud!

Better news: my father served in the Army Air Corps and a member in a prior church had also flown a B-24 bomber. I knew stuff! The patient told story after story. A great guy!

The patient died a few weeks later. It was my only visit.

My volunteering at this hospice eventually led to a job offer. I’m now a paid bereavement support specialist.

But I always remember how important volunteers are. They are a key part of hospice’s work with individuals and families.

At Hinds Hospice (I can’t speak for others), the path to become a volunteer is rigorous — also fun and rewarding. I attended multiple training sessions with other potential volunteers. I had to get letters of recommendations. A criminal background check was done.

Why is a hospice so diligent with training?

Picture me back in that patient’s living room, reading a book and doing nothing. For over an hour, I had complete access to everything this family owned. A helpless patient slept in a back room. It doesn’t take much to imagine the worst things that could happen when you “invite” a stranger into your home. This family, overwhelmed by a loved one’s dying, trusts that hospice will send a trustworthy person.

Picture me back in that veteran’s home, where he told me tales about one of the scariest times of his life. He’s scared now, too. Once, he “beat” death and came home from war. Now death is beating him, and he’s at his most vulnerable.

I appreciated my training. Families welcomed me into their homes and trusted me. It was a privilege to be a hospice volunteer. Just like the professional hospice staff, volunteers enter into people’s lives during one of their most tender and traumatic times. We are not there to tell them what to do, or tell them what to believe, but to listen to their needs and attempt to give them as much control as possible as their lives careen out of control.

I waited in a home because a family needed groceries.

I chatted (loudly) with a guy who told fascinating stories.

These two patients died soon after my visits. My training covered that, too. And since I’m a pastor who’s been in emergency rooms and hospitals, I anticipated death would be part of my experiences. But no volunteer training truly prepares anyone for visiting a patient one week — maybe just sitting with them, playing card games, listening to family stories — and then getting a call from the volunteer coordinator saying there’s no need for the next visit. Even my background in ministry doesn’t stop the tears or sadness when a “relationship” is abruptly over.

Visiting the dying isn’t for everyone.

But volunteering in any hospice in our community covers a lot of territory. There are paperwork needs, answering phones, assisting at events, and a host of other options. Every aspect of volunteering matters and helps a hospice care for families and patients.

Sometimes, it will feel like nothing happens. But that really wasn’t true. While I’d mostly read my book, the patient’s wife accomplished a simple, normal, necessary chore.

Doing “nothing” can be a very precious gift.

Try volunteering. A hospice, or other organization, needs you!

*I changed details to ensure confidentiality. But the visits were honestly meaningful.

Larry Patten is a writer and retired minister living in Fresno. This is revised from one of the chapters in his book, “A Companion for the Hospice Journey.” He maintains the website, and can be reached at