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Defining dignity: The profound role of hospice aides

Think about a time you couldn’t wait to take a hot shower, brush your teeth or shave. Maybe it was after a long plane ride, a camping trip or a particularly hot day. When you emerged clean, fresh and renewed, chances are you felt more like yourself.

Sick patients are no different. They yearn to perform these routine activities for solace and to maintain their dignity. Unfortunately, they’re often not mobile or well enough to complete them.

That’s where hospice aides—the MVPs of the hospice care team—play a pivotal role in patient care. They assist with intimate self-care tasks that have profound meaning. Their role requires them to be sensitive to their patients’ vulnerability and need for kindness.

In recognition of National Nursing Assistants Week, starting June 13, HopeHealth celebrates the skill and compassion of our hospice aides through two stories, told in the storytellers’ own words.

  • Patrick Wallace is a hospice aide who received HopeHealth’s Employee of the Quarter award in 2018. He recalls earning the trust of a proud patient who was uncomfortable asking for help.
  • Suzanne Fortier shares how hospice aides brought comfort to her father and family in his final days.

I tell them, “The reason I love to do what I do is that I meet good people like you. You bring joy to me, I bring joy to you, and that’s what this world is about.”

Patrick’s story: “I give and receive joy.”

I worked with a cancer patient, Jim,* who was told he had six months to live.

Jim was a retired firefighter and very proud. He wouldn’t let his wife and daughters give him any kind of direct care like bathing. He was embarrassed. A couple of our hospice aides tried to help him, but he refused. Then my manager asked me to go see him.

Man helping elderly patient read

Jim was friendly when we first met. “Hi, young man,” he said. I told him my purpose in visiting was to help him every day.

“Well, young man, that sounds good but I don’t think I need help. I can still take care of myself,” he said.

His wife called me aside and explained that it had been over a week since her husband had a bath. So I went back to Jim and asked him about his firefighting career. He had a whole lot of stories to tell me, and I told him my stories, too. Then I noticed he was scratching his skin.

I asked him, “Would you mind if I just rubbed some cream on you and all that good stuff?”

“That’s not a problem,” he said. The cream stopped the itching, and he liked that I spent time chatting with him.

The next day I visited again. “Jim, I think today would be a very good day for us to have a hot shower,” I said.

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. What do you think about that?”

“Okay, I won’t let you go home and not do what you are supposed to do. I don’t mind.”

Close up hands of helping hands elderly home care. Mother and daughter. Mental health and elderly care concept

Afterward he told his wife and me that it was the best shower he’d had in a long time, that it felt good. He wanted to tip me!

I explained that we don’t accept money whatsoever. “As long as you are happy and your wife is happy, I am happy,” I said.

From that point on, Jim always allowed me to care for him. I’d visit and he’d say to his wife, “Please don’t let the young man waste his time. Patrick, let’s go to the shower.” When his illness advanced to the point where he could no longer shower, I gave him bed baths.

After Jim passed away, I received one of the most touching letters from his family. It was three pages about the care I gave. That meant so much to me. I was not expecting anything like that.

A lot of times my patients ask me why I do what I do.

I tell them, “The reason I love to do what I do is that I meet good people like you. You bring joy to me, I bring joy to you, and that’s what this world is about.”

“When your loved one is very sick, you can fall into such a panic. Small things become monumental things.”

Suzanne’s story: “A shave for my dad”

My dad was always well dressed and clean-shaven. He was a very neat person.

When his health declined, he fell into a cycle that is familiar to a lot of people: emergency room, hospital, rehab and back home. He was admitted to the hospital at least six times in the last several months of his life.

In the hospital and rehab, it’s hard to keep yourself feeling clean and comfortable, which bothered my dad. My brother bought him an electric razor so he could shave himself.

When my dad was admitted to the hospital for the last time, we couldn’t find the charger for the razor anywhere. After five days he had stubble and started to feel unkempt. He didn’t feel good about that at all. Naturally, he wanted a shave and my family was freaking out. It became this big thing: Where’s the charger?

When your loved one is very sick, you can fall into such a panic. Small things become monumental things. We were focusing on the missing charger, but really what was going on was we knew my dad was ready for hospice.

It was 10 p.m. on a Friday when we brought him to the HopeHealth Hulitar Hospice Center in Providence. We were all exhausted while settling my dad into his room. Then the hospice aide walked in.

He took one look at my dad and asked us, “Does he want a shave?”

I started to cry. “He so wants a shave. That would be wonderful.”

One man in the bathroom , Shaves his beard

So the aide ushered us out of the room, and when we returned my dad was clean-shaven, bathed and wearing a clean gown. It seems like a little thing but it was so important in that moment.

My dad felt so relaxed at HopeHealth Hulitar Hospice Center, largely because of the gentle, compassionate care he received from the hospice aides there.

The aides were lovely, gentle and careful. They bathed my dad every morning and night, and no one ever left the room without asking how we were as a family. Our hospice aides recognized my dad’s humanity in his final days, and that kindness made my dad comfortable.

At one point my dad told my siblings, “Try and reassure your mother.” I think he was saying he knew he was dying but things were going to be okay.

My dad died three days later. On his final night my mother, brother, two sisters and I all stayed in his room. We were so grateful for that time together, with him so well cared for.

*Name changed to protect privacy.


Want to learn how HopeHealth cares for hospice patients and families? Read about our hospice team or call us at (844) 671-HOPE.

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