Volunteering for hospice

Why hospice volunteering is exactly what you need in your life

By Emily Arndt on April 11, 2023

Volunteering at your local hospice can bring just as much
to your life as it does to those you serve.

When Amy Dickinson, a hospice volunteer, was asked what she’d say to someone who never volunteered at a hospice before, her enthusiastic answer was, “Don’t wait, just do it!”

Typically, when you think of volunteering, you might think of petting animals at an animal shelter, organizing a bake sale or playing bingo at a senior living center.

For Amy and an estimated 420,000 others, the first thought is about providing emotional and spiritual support to hospice patients. It’s reported that each year, the 420,000 hospice volunteers produce more than 19 million hours of service and generate more than $469 million for providers.

Volunteering is “probably the biggest thing that we can do for ourselves,” said Amy. “Volunteering anywhere is wonderful, but volunteering for hospice - you have people who really care about you. People who will really support you in every way. Teach you what you need to know. Be there if you have a question…they will appreciate anything you do.”

Hospice: it’s all about death life

So, what is hospice? Hospice is specialized care that patients receive as they reach the end of their life due to an “advanced, life-limiting illness.” Hospice patients are cared for wherever they call home, whether in an assisted living facility, inpatient hospital wing, nursing home or private residence. According to Jen Horan, Director of Volunteer Services for Hospice & Community Care in Lancaster, PA, the purpose of hospice is to address the medical, emotional and spiritual needs of patients.

Amy volunteers at Hospice & Community Care, which is the largest non-profit hospice provider in Pennsylvania, serving nearly 500 patients a day in their Lancaster and York home hospice programs and inpatient center in Mount Joy. Their more than 1,100 loyal volunteers go above and beyond, like when they insisted that the “Care Team” program return post-peak COVID-19. The Care Team is activated when a patient is about to pass away and does not want to be alone. Thanks to their volunteers, Hospice & Community Care can assemble a Care Team within just a few hours.

To quote another one of Hospice &Community Care’s volunteers, “Hospice isn’t about dying in the end, it’s about living until the end.” Despite sounding like it’s about death, hospice is actually about life. Hospice staff and volunteers don’t just strive to ensure patients are comfortable, they strive to help them thrive in their last months or days. Patients are asked about their goals, which could include anything from not wanting to die alone, to reading poetry, to enjoying a plate of spaghetti and meatballs from a popular restaurant to fulfill a patient’s hope and wish (true story).

“For us it’s a gift to be able to play even a small role in making sure there’s quality of life at the end of life,” said Jen. Hospice is about celebrating life, not ending it.

What do hospice volunteers do?

Joseph Myers, Glatfelter Healthcare Sales Executive, got personal about what hospice volunteers do; “Having had both parents receive hospice care, I’ve witnessed first-hand the amount of compassion, energy and focus volunteers bring to patients. I recall many times receiving calls from volunteers asking, ‘What does your mom need?  Do you need a break? Would music be comforting to her?’ There were times that a volunteer came to cut her hair, or just to talk, while giving her caregivers a much-needed respite. That had a great emotional impact on my mom. It gave her a good feeling; her spirits were uplifted not only by the service the volunteers performed, but because of their genuine kindness. I cannot say enough good things about the hospice volunteers. When I think of their actions, words and deeds it still moves me three years later, which is why I’m especially proud to help provide insurance for them today.”

When asked what type of volunteers Hospice & Community care needs, Jen said, “If people want to give back and they have a skillset and a talent and a passion for that, we’ll find a way.” Anyone can volunteer for hospice because everyone has a skill to share. It can be as simple as reading to a patient or playing a song from your phone for them. These little moments really are the big ones, after all.

Hospice volunteer opportunities fall into two categories:

  1. Patient facing
  2. Non-patient facing

The two most common patient-facing roles are:

  1. Home hospice - includes visiting patients in a senior living facility or private home. These visits can involve anything from helping run errands, to rearranging the patient’s pillows so they’re comfortable, reading to a patient or even playing an instrument for them.
  2. Visiting patients in an inpatient hospital setting - includes everything above and may also involve, depending on volunteer comfort levels, patient feeding.

A critical part of patient-facing volunteering is serving as a liaison between hospice patients, staff and supporting caregivers. One small-but-mighty change Amy made at Hospice & Community Care was to add the question “how are you?” to the caregiver check-in call sheet. When this small but powerful question is asked of caregivers, they tend to open up about how they’re feeling and what they might need. This is an incredibly important part of what volunteers do. Caregivers – and often patients – are more likely to open up to volunteers because they feel that they don’t have to pretend to be superheroes. Patients, caregivers and volunteers build a sense of trust as volunteers provide an empathetic, listening ear.

If you prefer to be behind the scenes, there are still plenty of opportunities for you! They include non-patient facing tasks like helping office staff, making check-in calls to patients’ families and driving to pick up a plate of spaghetti and meatballs (again, true story). Volunteers also often assist with special events, including Hospice & Community Care’s annual Plant Sale and Labor Day Auction fundraiser or representing Hospice at a community event. You name the skill, and Jen and other volunteer coordinators will find a way to use it!

The “why”

Volunteers play a critical role in the lives of patients and hospice operations. There is a high amount of respect and regard between volunteers and paid staff. In fact, at Hospice & Community Care, volunteers receive the same photo ID badges as paid staff. Jen Horan said, “We see volunteers as an extension of our teams that support our patients and families.” In fact, at many organizations, volunteers are listed as official members of the team.

Hospice volunteers are critical, not only because of their huge contributions, but because they are literally a necessary part of the team – legally. The Medicare law that defines hospice mandates that 5% of each facility’s total patient care hours be volunteer. This ensures that patients receive a life-changing combination of a qualified clinical team and support of the community through volunteerism.

“I can’t tell you how much more I get out of this than I give.”

You’re likely to hear this phrase from any hospice volunteer you meet. While at first it may seem that all benefits of hospice volunteering go to patients and caregivers, there are actually a multitude of benefits to the volunteer.

Here are three benefits to you:

  1. You’ll build life experience and empathy
    One day Amy was visiting one of her regular patients named Beth. Beth was unresponsive that day and Amy remembered that Beth enjoyed music. Amy started singing to Beth. Soon, Beth was opening her eyes, singing along. She had come to life. This turned out to be the last time Amy saw Beth. But Amy will always have that memory, knowing she made Beth’s last day brighter. Especially for young people, volunteering at hospice can be a great way to build empathy, perspective and life experience.

  2. You’ll build relationships with loving and caring people
    People who work and volunteer for hospice are kind people who want to give back. In these caring individuals, you’ll be surrounded by new friends, confidants and surrogate family members. Many hospices hold events for volunteers to get to know each other. And that’s just volunteers and staff. With the patients, you’ll meet people every day with amazing stories who are just looking to share them with people like you in their last months or days. As Amy noted, “We are put on this earth to form relationships and I think that’s what we’re doing with our patients and the caregivers – we’re making a connection.”
  1. You’ll get experience for your resume and possible insights for your career
    Volunteering at hospice is an invaluable way to gain experience in healthcare if you’re interested in the field. There are also endless ways you can support hospice centers, patients and their caregivers that would benefit you personally and professionally. Maybe you’re a musician who needs performance experience. Maybe you write poetry and want to share it with someone. Or maybe you are a great organizer and you can share your talents with office staff. There is a role for everyone and there’s no reason you can’t benefit from the opportunity to help others, too.

What training will you receive?

When you first reach out to a hospice provider to ask about volunteering, they will set up an interview with you. This interview is designed to help the hospice understand your skills and interests, availability, location and where you’d best fit. Think of this process as a hospice Match.com. Once your role(s) is established, you’ll go through training. In the case of Hospice & Community Care, their new volunteer training is a total of 12 hours over two days in person, or online at a trainee’s own pace.

As you take on new responsibilities, you will receive new training - whether you’re helping plan an event or calling caregivers. As you go, what you do and how quickly you’ll go will be entirely up to you and your comfort level. You can always shadow someone, ask for more training, change your role and/or reduce your hours.

Hospices are glad to have you – with any skills you offer and any free time you can spare. Volunteer shifts usually run Monday-Friday during the business day, weekends, some evenings and holidays.

How do you start?

Hospice organizations around the country will be thrilled to hear you’ll contribute to their 5% volunteer hours legal quota!

To locate a hospice to volunteer near you, visit the  National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s directory here.

If you live in the Lancaster-York area and would like to volunteer with Hospice & Community Care, visit their website, click “Volunteer” and fill out an application.

Like Amy said, don’t wait. Volunteer now. You never know who is waiting for you to come visit, and what life-changing moments could be about to take place.

Emily Arndt

Em, a proud cat mom to Margot and Teddy, enjoys learning guitar, the beach, writing, and working on her sarcasm.


The information contained in this blog post is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace expert advice in connection with the topics presented. Glatfelter specifically disclaims any liability for any act or omission by any person or entity in connection with the preparation, use or implementation of plans, principles, concepts or information contained in this publication.

Glatfelter does not make any representation or warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the results obtained by the use, adherence or implementation of the material contained in this publication. The implementation of the plans, principles, concepts or materials contained in this publication is not a guarantee that you will achieve a certain desired result. It is strongly recommended that you consult with a professional advisor, architect or other expert prior to the implementation of plans, principles, concepts or materials contained in this publication.

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