In my estimation, there are few things as important as helping those who are nearing the end of their lives.

Many of us have been there — watching our parents or other relatives suffer from a life-threatening illness, either at home or in a hospital or nursing home, knowing that time is running out.

It can be a helpless, lonely feeling, not only for those who are sick, but also for those of us who help care for and support them.

I remember when my father-in-law lay on his deathbed in the hospital several years ago, and we knew he could go at any time. As snow from a major storm piled higher and the wind howled outside, my husband and I were pretty much on our own except for the nurses and doctor who would check in regularly to offer a kind word.

I remember wishing there were someone we could call who understood death and what we were going through, someone who would just come and sit with us and talk. I wished I had thought earlier of connecting with a hospice organization.

Those of us who have helped care for sick and dying relatives in their homes know it can be tough, both emotionally and physically, particularly when there are not enough hands to pitch in.

Yet we would have it no other way. When someone significant in our lives asks to die at home, we must do everything possible to grant that wish.

That’s where volunteer hospice organizations come in and play a critical role in helping both the patient and family with free, non-medical assistance. Volunteers come into the home and help with light housekeeping and other chores, sit with a sick person, read him a book, play a game or just talk. A volunteer can come and relieve a caregiver who needs a break to go shopping or run errands. Such a seemingly small gesture on the part of the volunteer is a huge help to a caregiver.

I love the story Jason Gayne, executive director of Hospice Volunteers of Somerset County, told me about one of his volunteers whose client’s dying wish was to go to a casino. The volunteer loaded the person’s wheelchair in the back of a pickup truck, and he and his client went to Hollywood Casino in Bangor, wheelchair, oxygen tank and all. That same volunteer took another client, a former trapper, to visit all of the client’s favorite trapping spots before he died. What dedication and compassion.

I called Gayne because I’d heard Hospice Volunteers of Somerset County was struggling financially and needs volunteers. When Gayne took over the organization two years ago, donations and the number of volunteers were decreasing. Last year, hospice had four employees, but it had to cut two because of budget restraints, leaving only Gayne and volunteer services coordinator Karen Champagne. It also had to eliminate some programs. Hospice, whose budget was $140,000 this year, gets 95 percent of its funding through donations and fundraising. In a county where the economy is tough, garnering enough donations is difficult, especially with so many nonprofit organizations asking for help, according to Gayne. For instance, hospice’s main fundraiser of the year is a dinner-auction held in April and three other nonprofits held their fundraising events at the same time — so the money was spread thin.

Somerset Hospice, whose office is at 41 Main St. in Skowhegan, covers a huge territory — all of Somerset County and parts of Penobscot and Waldo counties. All of its services are free. Volunteers work with clients from Jackman and Rockwood Plantation to Newport, Unity, Troy, Freedom and Burnham. In addition to providing bereavement support and respite care, hospice also raises funds and spreads awareness, hosts support groups for people who are grieving a loss, gathers used medical equipment and cleans and donates it to those who need it, trains volunteers and offers the Pet Piece of Mind program. That program helps hospice clients keep their pets in their homes by helping to pay veterinarian bills, taking a pet to the vet, walking a pet and buying pet food.

Somerset Hospice also has a teen program that trains school youths to do yard work and other tasks for clients and to go to nursing homes and play board games with or read to clients. A week before Christmas, two teens helped Champagne deliver carnations and greeting cards to residents of every nursing home in Somerset County.

Hospice has a memorial garden in Coburn Park in Skowhegan where it holds a memorial service in June and in December. It holds a Lights to Remember celebration at the Federated Church in that town.

Hospice desperately needs volunteers. It has only 19 active volunteers and Gayne says many more are needed.

“Over 50 would be the dream,” he said.

Gayne is a part-time patrol officer for the Skowhegan Police Department in addition to working full time at hospice. Champagne became involved in hospice after her husband died 12 years ago. She became a volunteer as a way of giving back for all of the help she received. Three years ago, the paid position of volunteer services coordinator came open and she was happy to take it.

Gayne and Champagne know the critical role hospice plays, and they will continue to champion the organization despite its struggles.

Many people are afraid of death and can not be around those who are dying. Those who can — and embrace hospice volunteer work — are special people. I’m sure if they were rich, they’d lavish funds on the volunteer organization.

Instead, they give of their precious time, energy and love to make people’s lives brighter during dark times.

For that, they deserve our support.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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