Volunteers show compassion for dying people, families - Catholic Courier
A man who volunteers for a comfort-care home sits on a bed. Volunteer and registered nurse Peter Brandt-Sorheim sits on an available bed at Teresa House Comfort Care Home in Geneseo Oct. 24. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

Volunteers show compassion for dying people, families

Leah Fletcher started volunteering at Teresa House in Geneseo in 2004. The two-bedroom, comfort-care home was seeking volunteers, and Fletcher thought she could do clerical work there during the day while her children were in school.

But she wasn’t sure she wanted direct contact with residents of the home for the dying, which she feared might be depressing. The opposite turned out to be true, however, said Fletcher, who has served as director of the house since 2016.

“I just found it to be very uplifting,” Fletcher said. “It is sad when somebody passes away and you do get attached to them. But there’s so much caring and so much love here that you feel anything you can do to help is a blessing to the residents and their families.”

The comfort-care home’s model developed in Rochester, has spread throughout the state

The loving atmosphere Fletcher described is created by volunteers who care both for the residents of comfort-care homes and the residents’ families, according to Pat Bomba, a doctor of geriatric and internal medicine and a parishioner at Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford. Comfort-care homes are places that provide compassionate care for the dying — care that neither hastens nor prevents death, according to Bomba, who was senior medical director of geriatrics and palliative care for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield until her retirement in July 2021.

These homes typically employ a nurse or doctor, but the majority of the residents’ care is provided by volunteers at no cost to the patient or family,” according to CompassionandSupport.org, an online resource put together by Bomba’s team at Excellus.

The concept of the comfort-care home was born when Mount Carmel House opened in Rochester in 1984. Other homes modeled after this two-bed operation soon sprang up throughout the region, and today nearly two dozen comfort-care homes operate in the 12 counties comprised by the Diocese of Rochester. The popularity of these homes has spread, and they have begun to appear outside of the Rochester region.

“Other areas of the state have developed this model based on what’s happening in Rochester,” Bomba added. “The comfort-care homes are a real blessing in our community, particularly for individuals who either have no one to care for them, no family, or their care needs are beyond what the family can do at home.”

Volunteers are at the heart of comfort-care homes, caring for residents and family members alike

Volunteers are able to provide an experience of family to residents who may not have biological family members present, Bomba added. Through their work, volunteers are able to live out Jesus’ call to visit the sick, which is one of the seven corporal works of mercy.

Comfort-care homes also provide a respite for family members who have been caring for a dying loved one, Fletcher added. Freeing family members of the responsibilities of caregiving enables them to spend quality time with their dying loved ones, she noted.

“They can just be families. They can sit and be present and talk and do all that kind of stuff and not have to worry about trying to get their medications on time,” Fletcher said.

Of course, family members remain free to participate as much as they wish in their loved ones’ care, added Karen Walker, executive director of Keuka Comfort Care Home in Penn Yan. They’re permitted to stay overnight in a home’s extra bedrooms or use its kitchen to cook meals, but volunteers also are available to cook meals for them or just to talk, she said.

But to offer such service, the homes need volunteers willing to undertake hands-on care of residents as well as people eager to take on more run-of-the-mill tasks.

“You could be answering the phone, running to get more gloves, washing clothes or towels, watering plants, mopping, dusting, whatever it takes to maintain a house,” Walker said.

Volunteering at comfort-care homes changes people for the better

Especially at first, some volunteers are intimidated by the thought of physically caring for residents, Walker and Fletcher agreed. Others want to be involved in such care, particularly if they’ve learned through experiencing the deaths of loved ones exactly how valuable such compassionate care is at the end of life, Bomba said.

Regardless of what initially prompted them to get involved, many volunteers find themselves changed by their experiences, Walker and Fletcher said. Working so closely with families preparing to say goodbye to loved ones often makes volunteers more grateful for what they have in their own lives, Walker said.

Caring for the dying and their families also seems to make people more patient, and more likely to feel empathy for others, Fletcher said.

“I think they may feel that they are better prepared for dealing with death and dying in their own lives,” she added. “Sometimes that can be a scary thought, and maybe it takes (the fear) away a little bit.”

Tags: Faith in Action, Life Issues
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