Volunteers help hospice patients stay in homes

Natalie Morris

Elaine Sheaffer is quick to tap Richard Eimer on the forearm to get his attention after he mentioned he drove himself to the bank earlier in the week.

“It doesn’t hurt to ask other people to do that,” said Sheaffer, Eimer’s hospice volunteer since the 95-year-old man, of Lincoln, Ill., signed up for the program through Memorial Home Services, an afilliate of Memorial Health System in central Illinois.

“How did it go? How was your back?”

Eimer, who is hooked up to an oxygen tank and unsteady on his legs even with the help of his walker, admits it wasn’t an easy trip. He even goes so far as to wonder if he should renew his driver’s license when it expires.

But thanks to Sheaffer and Memorial’s hospice program, Eimer doesn’t have to worry about giving up the home in Lincoln where he reared six children and has lived by himself since his wife died 11 years ago.

Through the hospice program, a nurse visits Eimer twice a week to monitor his health, a home health aide stops in three times a week to help him with bathing and Sheaffer comes to the house twice weekly to run errands, help with light housework and provide companionship.

“My first thought when my daughter mentioned (hospice) was, ‘I’m not terminal,’” Eimer said. “But then they explained I didn’t have to be. Hospice has prevented me from having to go to the nursing home.

“And it’s really helped my kids, taken a load off them. The nurse and hygienist are very professional. And to top it all off, I got a good volunteer. She’s delightful, very bright. She talks and visits with me.”

Sense of purpose

After just six visits, the two already have an obvious rapport.

Sheaffer — seated beside Eimer’s orange recliner — is quick to pipe up, “Oh, tell her about ...” and Eimer obliges with memories of growing up during the Great Depression, watching his father prepare a farm field with a horse-drawn plow and his mixed feelings of getting a medical exemption from World War II because of lead poisoning he got from working as a pressman at the local newspaper.

“She’s so fast,” Eimer says of Sheaffer, as she goes to fill a glass of water. “It’s like lightning.”

“That’s because I want to hear your stories,” replies Sheaffer, who has worked with 20 patients since first volunteering for Memorial’s program in 2003.

“It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done, being a hospice volunteer,” she said. “It gives a sense of purpose. It’s good to give back.

“They’ve really had an impact on my life. It’s a very humbling thing to be a volunteer. It keeps me grounded, makes me appreciate what I have. I take away a lot more then I bring," she said.

Volunteers needed

Memorial Home Services provides similar hospice assistance to upwards of 750 patients annually in 14 counties throughout central Illinois. Sheaffer is one of 56 volunteers.

Ronda Dudley, director of Memorial Home Service’s Home Health and Hospice program, said Medicare requires that volunteers make up 5 percent of all hospice programs. Memorial uses closer to 12 to 15 percent of volunteers because of the needs of patients and their families.

“It’s such a value to the patient so we really put a lot of emphasis on it,” Dudley said. “We would like to significantly increase (the number of volunteers).

“You can never have too many.”

Volunteers work directly with patients and families by providing companionship, assisting with errands or offering bereavement support. Some volunteers also work in the office, making follow-up calls to families after a hospice patient has died.

“All that’s required is love for hospice, compassion for people at this time in their lives,” said Amy Evans, Memorial Home Services volunteer and community education coordinator. “It’s something everybody can do.”

‘Just my thing’

Sheaffer got involved after retiring from a 36-year nursing career.

“I needed to do something. I tried several things and nothing was a good fit,” she said. “Then I saw the advertisement for the training class.

“After you go through the class, you’ll know if you’re going to like it. This is just my thing, my passion.”

Sheaffer said people often shy away from volunteering because they think they aren’t qualified or are uncomfortable dealing with death.

“People are reluctant,” Sheaffer said. “They see the negatives and are uncomfortable talking about death. But that’s the reward in this — to make this process, the journey, as rewarding as it can be.”

Eimer’s daughter, Dixie Ross, said hospice has made a big difference for her family.

“It’s nice not having to constantly think about what I need to do for him. Hospice took a lot of pressure off,” she said. “I can be his daughter again and not worry about being his caregiver.”