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not practice social distance_volunteer

Let me be clear – the title of this blog is click bait. By no means do I suggest anyone disregard the protective guidelines suggested by health and government authorities. The pandemic is a severe crisis and it has disrupted just about everything humans do to connect with one another. That being said, volunteers should not practice “social” distancing.

Now that I have your attention, let me explain. The basic role of a Hosparus Health volunteer is to provide presence and support. Until recently, volunteers visited with patients in nursing homes or offered respite to a caregiver so they could take a break. Patients alone and actively dying had an 11th Hour volunteer sitting by their bedside through the night.

Volunteers have given their time in the office, affording the organization valuable cost savings. In 2019 alone, Hosparus Health volunteers provided 72,000 hours, saving $1.8 million. Since the model of hospice care began, volunteers have provided emotional support to patients, caregivers and families, and have been recognized as intrinsic members of the interdisciplinary team.

When the pandemic began, hospice patients were identified as extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. First, volunteer visits to nursing home visits were suspended. Then, home visits stopped. As staff were sent home to work remotely, volunteers were no longer able to come into the office.

While our essential clinical staff – physicians, nurses, social workers, and chaplains have continued to make in-person visits as needed, telehealth visits have also become the norm. Along with handwashing, the rule of six feet of separation is the preferred method for combating the spread of illness. Separation, or “social distancing” from one another is now routine.

It might be splitting hairs, but it’s important to be intentional about what words we convey.

As we weather the pandemic, we use “social” media to connect, or associate, with one another. Yet the term social distancing implies that we are to limit the way we associate with one another. Remaining six feet apart and staying home is physical distancing. We are finding ways to maintain social human connection while remaining safe and physically distant.

As these days of social isolation turn into weeks and now months, the need to get out and be with other people in the warmer summer months is likely to intensify. None of us want this pandemic to turn into years, so we must remain vigilant and devise routine ways of safely socializing with one another.

Mobile phone companies report that people are using their phones more than ever. As soon as the pandemic started, hospice volunteers picked up their phones to call and check in on their patients, caregivers, and staff. Volunteers are mailing cards and letters. We’ve watched pet therapy volunteers coax their canine companion into view of the camera to make videos for patients. We recently held a town hall meeting with our CEO and volunteer services staff on a conference call, and next week, we are holding a video meeting so volunteers to catch up and see one another.

The front porch of our homes has been making a comeback as a place of connection. Our volunteers, along with community members who support our mission, are leaving handmade face masks, prayer beads, and care blankets on their porch for pick up and distribution to our patients and teams. Volunteers make meals or grocery shop and deliver to the front porch of patients. Volunteers have been delivering freshly cut flower arrangements to front porches and nursing home front desks all over Louisville.

When a patient told his volunteer how sad he was, and how much he missed her visits, she visited through the back-porch window. While maintaining a safe physical distance, the two talked for almost two hours. Volunteers have been working with staff on the inside of nursing homes to identify patient rooms for window visits and leaving artwork and hand painted birdhouses outside their rooms.

A volunteer worked outside to clean up a yard that was neglected while the caregiver cared for their loved one. Though they are no longer able to provide physical support in our inpatient care center, volunteers have been dropping off meals for our staff and boxes of shelf stable food for the pantry in the family kitchen.

These are just some of the many stories we’ve heard from volunteers. Every day, the pandemic brings heartbreaking news from all over the world. The reports from our volunteers are truly heartwarming and offer hope. It remains to be seen what long-term effect the pandemic will have on the way volunteers care for hospice patients.

What the virus won’t be able to do, though, is to change the mission of our volunteers – improving the quality of the lives of our patients and families through their generous gifts of time and donations. It may not be next to the patient’s bedside, but the emotional and social support of volunteers will continue regardless of the need to remain physically distanced.