Ongoing emotional support is a critical facet of effective hospice care. As noted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with services to help reduce physical pain and discomfort, “complete end-of-life care includes helping the dying person manage mental and emotional distress.”1
But it’s one thing to prioritize patients’ emotional well-being in hospice care. It’s another to effectively create and nurture an emotional connection when patients are in advanced stages of life-limiting illnesses. This is especially challenging for hospice volunteers, many of whom have abundant compassion but no professional certifications for end-of-life care.
Here are three training tips to help hospice volunteers deliver effective emotional support.
1) Pinpoint Their Role
A recent article from the NIH notes that volunteers often bridge the gap between clinical staff and the community at large, in turn offering a way for those in hospice to feel connected to the outside world, and those outside to learn more about the function of hospice facilities in their community.2
Because of their dual role in hospice, the emotional support provided by volunteers is naturally different than that of doctors, nurses and other specialists. As a result, training in emotional support for volunteers differs from that of staff. Where professionals focus on the long-term impacts of hospice care across physical, mental, and emotional well-being, volunteers provide a key emotional outlet for patients to reconnect with the outside world. By clearly identifying the role of hospice volunteers, providers can better equip them to meet patients’ emotional needs.
2) Provide Easy Access to Patient Preferences
Hospice volunteers may not get paid, but they play a vitally important role as members of the interdisciplinary team. Like other team members, it is imperative that they have accurate and up-to-date information regarding the patient and their volunteer tasks to provide appropriate support. Volunteers can be assigned to a multitude of different tasks from life review, reading from spiritual scriptures, or playing cards, and so understanding patient and family histories, preferences, and needs becomes critical in fostering successful connections. Tools such as mobile-enabled hospice software can allow volunteers to view key patient data anytime, anywhere, and more quickly forge this emotional link.
3) Prioritize Volunteer Well-Being
While emotional support is critical for patient well-being, it also takes a toll on caregivers, and this includes volunteers. The American Psychological Association (APA) makes it clear: “Meta-analyses of the physical and mental health effects of caregiving have shown higher levels of depression and physical health problems in caregivers when compared with non-caregivers.”3
Put simply, the act of providing emotional support comes with its own emotional costs. Highly compassionate volunteers who see multiple patients across all stages of disease and illness progression can find themselves “burning out” and struggling to deliver consistent care. By offering outlets for volunteers to talk about their experiences, learn more about hospice operations and express their emotions around their role, hospice providers can reduce the risk of volunteer burnout and help bolster emotional connections.
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Best Practices to Eliminate Compliance Gaps in Hospices
1 National Institutes of Health, “Providing Care and Comfort at the End of Life,” May 17, 2017.
2 National Institutes of Health “Hospice Volunteers: Bridging the Gap to the Community?” November 2017.
3 American Psychological Association, “Mental and Physical Health Effects of Family Caregiving,” 2015.