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Daughter, friend, “caregiver to the caregiver”: The path & passion of a hospice volunteer

Many of HopeHealth’s volunteers come to us after a personal experience. During a difficult time, our hospice team was there for them and their loved ones. Now, they want to be there for others.

Joan Bennet is one of these volunteers. Her mother, her father and her dear friend passed away on HopeHealth’s care.

With each experience, she saw another aspect of hospice — and discovered another way she wanted to pay it forward.

“This place is so beautiful”

Back in 2012, when Joan’s mother, Marie, was nearing the end of life, she needed hospital-grade care. So one of the family’s first experiences with HopeHealth, and hospice in general, was at the HopeHealth Hulitar Hospice Center.

The Hulitar Hospice Center is the only freestanding inpatient hospice facility in Rhode Island. It proved to be entirely different than any hospital the family had visited before.

“As Mom was wheeled in by stretcher, she said, ‘This place is so beautiful,’” Joan recalls. The center’s peaceful, home-like setting was an instant balm. Joan began referring to it as a “5-star hotel to heaven.”

The days that followed were both heartbreaking, as the family said goodbye, and healing.

“The nurses and the staff treated Mom like a movie star,” Joan says. “The level of care was extraordinary. Mom’s comfort was their primary concern. And when the Good Lord was calling her home, all her children and Dad were allowed to be there with her 24/7.”

“Hospice care provided great dignity and respect for Mom’s next journey,” she says. “They made such a difficult experience easier. I was humbled by their support.”

“She helped him through his darkest days”

After her mom passed away, Joan was introduced to another unexpected aspect of hospice care: grief support services.

“People may not realize that grief support is such a big benefit of hospice,” says Joan. “No matter how long hospice cares for your loved one — an hour, a week or months — you get 13 months of one-on-one grief support, then access to the grief line and grief support groups.”

Both Joan and her dad, Tom, found these services essential. For Joan, it was with grief counselor Diane Lambert. For Tom, it was grief counselor Deanna Upchurch, now HopeHealth’s director of Community and Clinical Outreach Services.

Tom had plenty of support from family too; after Marie passed away, he’d moved in with Joan and her husband, and everyone enjoyed the arrangement. But at 87 years old, he was living for the first time in 63 years without his beloved Marie. In Joan’s words, “a part of his heart was taken away.”

In the months that followed, Deanna helped him reclaim it.

“Deanna and Dad formed a very unique and beautiful friendship. She helped him through his darkest days and nights of missing my mother,” says Joan.

Then, a little over two years after Marie’s death, Tom’s doctor broke the news. An old cancer had returned. At Tom’s age, it was untreatable. He needed hospice.

“That’s when we called HopeHealth a second time,” says Joan.

This time, following Tom’s wishes, the family experienced hospice at home. Over the next few months, nurse Liz Hayward came regularly to check in, ensure Tom’s medication was doing its job, and make sure the family had everything they needed.

“Dad grew to love Liz,” says Joan. “He always asked, ‘When is Liz coming over?’ or said, ‘Ask Liz what she thinks.’ Liz became his advocate. Her mission was to make Dad as comfortable as possible at any cost. She fought for him till the end.”

Tom took his final breath with his six children by his side, at home where he wanted to be.

Woman with short blonde hair looks down at brick remembrance garden
Joanie looks down at the two bricks placed in memory of her beloved parents, in the garden at the HopeHealth Hulitar Hospice Center

“I wanted to give back”

After her father passed away, Joan did two things.

First, she said yes to additional counseling from HopeHealth’s grief support team.

“Grief counseling has helped me understand that talking about loved ones keeps them alive. It also provides hope,” she says.

Second, she reached out to HopeHealth’s volunteer center.

“HopeHealth changed my family’s life,” Joan says. “They were there for us 24 hours a day. They were there to help us make difficult decisions and they were there to pick us up when we were down. I wanted to give back to this organization that gave so much to me.”

As a retired nurse, she was used to working with patients and families, so she started visiting patients at the Hulitar Hospice Center once a week. When the pandemic limited in-person volunteering, she made condolence calls to bereaved family members. She put patient packets together and assisted with HopeHealth’s philanthropy work — whatever it took to be involved.

Then, as the world was opening back up again, her lifelong best friend, Tender, shared a wrenching update. Tender’s husband, Tommy, had Alzheiner’s disease. It was progressing. Soon, he would need hospice.

And Joan knew she was exactly where she was meant to be.

Woman with short blonde hair stands at desk organizing papers
Joanie smiles bright at she proudly volunteers in the office at the HopeHealth Hulitar Hospice Center. She’s putting together patient family information packets.

“Caregiver to the caregiver”

Tender’s first name is Helen, but for as long as anyone can remember, she’s gone by her nickname. And for as long as anyone can remember, Joan’s been by her side.

“We’ve been the best of friends since we were 10 years old. We’re 68 now,” says Joan. “Everyone always said, ‘Tender and Joanie, together always.’”

When Tender shared Tommy’s news, that proved true as ever. Joan was devastated for both of them: “They had such a true love marriage,” she says. She wanted to make their next chapter — one she’d so recently experienced — a little easier.

“I just wanted to do whatever I could to support them as they went through this journey,” Joan says.

As a former nurse, she turned instinctively to education. She signed up for HopeHealth’s Caregiver Confidence series, free workshops about topics like caring for a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. She also signed up for a free dementia caregiver support group to better understand the stress that Tender was facing.

“I wanted to learn how to be there for Tender — how to be ‘caregiver to the caregiver,’” Joan says.

Finally, in a full circle moment, she became an official part of their HopeHealth hospice team. At everyone’s request, HopeHealth’s volunteer manager, Robin Blanchette, arranged for Joan to be paired with Tommy for her volunteer service. As his disease progressed, she was part of the trusted team who provided support in the home.

“HopeHealth was there to help Tommy pass peacefully at home,” says Joan. “I was honored to be able to provide that support.”

Two women standing next to each other with big smiles.
Joanie stands with Robin Blanchette, Volunteer Department Manager, who she says was instrumental in helping coordinate volunteer support for her dear friend Tommy.

“I am part of a mission that really helps”

When faced with another person’s loss, many of us question how much of a difference we can really make. Joan Bennet knows the answer to this question, because she has been on both sides.

It is volunteers like Joan who make HopeHealth’s work possible — bringing compassion and dignity to patients and families in some of life’s most profound moments.

“I saw my parents take their last breath. I saw my granddaughter take her first breath. I am glad I got to experience those moments,” Joan says. “And I love coming to volunteer with HopeHealth. I am part of a mission that really helps people.”

Interested in volunteering? Contact us today at (844) 671-4673 or

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