Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hospice Volunteer Training: End-of-Life Communication Issues

Sooner or later, hospice volunteers experience or observe communication concerns relating to patients or their families. In a research study by the Communications Department at the University of Utah, hospice volunteers reported that denial was the most common communication issue for patients, family members, and caregivers. The second most reported communication problems related to negative feelings and family conflicts. At personal levels, volunteers reported that their most common communication problems centered on interacting with patients who had diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease that impaired conversations. These results suggest that volunteer training programs should include more information to support volunteers in their communication efforts.

Personally, I enjoy coming up with ways to bridge gaps in communication. I never assume patients cannot hear me, unless they have been officially diagnosed as hearing impaired. I talk to them the way I would talk to hearing patients. I tell them what's going on at the nursing home and other news. Even when their eyes are closed, but I know they are awake, I tell them who else is in the room and say something positive about them to those present, so patients can feel included in the conversations.

I check their assignment forms and talk to their caregivers to find out what their backgrounds and interests are. This gives me more sources for topic ideas. If patients are able to leave the room, I take them on walks or wheelchair rides. I read to them, play music I think they will enjoy, touch them to reinforce my presence; I feed them, play games, sing, play the radio, and watch television with them, regularly making comments and always analyzing their body language to see if I'm making connections.

When I do a good job of this, I see signs that we are making progress. There may be smiles, alertness, something in their eyes that tells me our communication gaps are getting smaller, that we are forging relationships enhancing our lives. That's when the beauty of hospice volunteering sweeps me up like a great piece of music.

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback and e-book editions in America and other countries at online and offline booksellers.


  1. I so appreciate that you "enjoy coming up with ways to bridge gaps in communication."

    Being a hospice volunteer is both stressful and rewarding. If you and your fellow volunteers ever need a little help telling your stories or figuring out your feelings, take a look at YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT? JOURNALING FOR CAREGIVERS. It offers encouragement, instructions, and over 200 sentence starts to help you tell your story. Available from Amazon.

    B. Lynn Goodwin

  2. What a wonderful post--you demonstrate true empathy. We must walk in someone else's shoes as best we can.

    Beth Sanders