Maddie Stepanian is 80 years old and, after 15 wonderful years as a HopeHealth hospice volunteer, she is retiring.
Volunteers do many different things at HopeHealth, depending on their preference. Some, like Maddie, offer companionship to hospice patients and their families.
Happy reflections on volunteering
Maddie chose hospice volunteering to continue using her nursing experience in oncology, psychiatry and end-of-life care. “I liked the ability to control my time and fell in love with the team,” she explains. “And most importantly, I loved the opportunity to care for others.”
She was also adamant that she volunteer for a not-for-profit. “HopeHealth is there because they are truly dedicated to helping their community. The whole staff has been phenomenal,” she says.
Maddie recalls feeling a bit apprehensive to meet her first patient, a woman named Barbara.* She wondered if they would click. Her fears were immediately released when Barbara asked if she played Yahtzee. After Maddie admitted she didn’t know how, Barbara warmly replied, “I’ll teach you.” And she spent the next three hours doing just that. It was a joyful introduction to hospice volunteering.
Just like her very first patient, the final patient that Maddie met with was a pleasant surprise. Paul* insisted on teaching her about politics, which she normally avoided with her patients. But after a few weeks of lessons (he always had one ready when she arrived), she learned so much and actually had fun.
“I can’t say enough about HopeHealth’s amazing staff.”
Maddie understands that sometimes people are more challenging because they are scared or lonely and just need a kind word or a warm visit.
She recalls one patient, Robert,* who wasn’t always cheerful during their visits. One day towards the end of his life, he told her, “Thank you for coming and spending time with me. Most people are afraid of me.”
“I’ll think of him forever,” Maddie says, her voice cracking with emotion.
“Sometimes just your presence is enough.”
Getting to know so many different people over the years, Maddie learned about other cultures, walks of life, and generosity of spirit.
A patient named Anna* taught Maddie to knit. Every visit, she introduced Maddie to an array of stitches and excitedly encouraged her to try each one. Maddie enjoyed learning new things and, with Anna’s gentle guidance, was determined to knit a scarf.
Several months later, Maddie walked into her scheduled visit with Anna proudly wearing her self-made, four-foot long scarf. Anna broke out in laughter and said, “You have to stop.”
Maddie chuckles over the memory. “The scarf isn’t wearable but I still have it. It always reminds me of Anna.”
Although not every patient was easy, they were all glad she was there. “Sometimes just your presence is enough,” she says.
With sincere respect, Maddie recalls participating in a “vigil to death” for a hospice patient and devout Roman Catholic named Sue*.
In her final hours, Sue asked for a volunteer to say the rosary with her. By the time Maddie came for her shift, Sue was unresponsive, but Maddie began saying the rosary anyway. After a few lines, she noticed Sue mouthing the words.
“She passed away saying the rosary with me,” Maddie remembers. It was a truly profound moment.
Volunteering as a positive experience
“One of the best parts of HopeHealth is that they explain everything and prepare you well,” Maddie says. “You are free to decline or change assignments if it isn’t working out. I can’t say enough about HopeHealth’s amazing staff.”
In addition to in-depth training and solid preparation, HopeHealth is “very, very supportive” to their volunteers, Maddie says, encouraging them to connect with other volunteers and take breaks from service. Volunteers can choose to serve for a day or years, in private homes or care facilities.
In many cases, volunteers help family caregivers get a break, if only for a few hours. As a nurse, Maddie knows how important that time away is to mental health and felt humbled that families trusted her in their homes.
She continues to support HopeHealth financially and has made advance arrangements for donations in lieu of flowers when she crosses to the next life. “My whole family knows my wishes,” she says with delight in her voice.
Retiring from service is bittersweet for Maddie. “I need to slow down, but I miss it terribly. Volunteering has given me the most satisfaction. I’ve grown and become a better person and, for that, I’m very grateful,” she says.
*Names changed to protect privacy.