The Importance of ‘Being There’ for People with Serious Illness

Two Palliative Care Volunteers Share their Stories

Palliative care volunteer training
Janelle Brady and her client Estelle in January 2016

The first time Gary Stower arrived to meet with Charlie, a critically ill client of Seniors At Home, Charlie point-blank said, “So, why are you here?”

Gary, who had recently completed Seniors At Home’s in-depth Palliative Care Volunteer Training Program, was initially thrown by the question. His training had prepared him to provide practical, emotional, and spiritual support to people experiencing serious illness and when Seniors At Home had suggested that Charlie might like a volunteer visitor, and Charlie agreed, the meeting was scheduled.

Gary thought for a moment and told Charlie, “I have a natural affinity for supporting seniors and people who are dealing with illness, and it has always been important to me. I look forward to spending time with you, Charlie.”

Charlie smiled, satisfied with the answer. Gary recalls, “I think he was looking for reassurance of why me—a stranger—would want to spend time with him, but he was glad that I was there.”

For six years, Gary, has been there for Charlie in many meaningful ways, whether it’s listening to music, swapping travel stories, or organizing them to attend a local minor-league baseball game—one of Charlie’s favorite pastimes.

Gary says that the time he has spent with Charlie is like nothing else in his life, “just being there for someone and being a familiar presence during a difficult time is a reward in itself.”

The Power of Friendship for Those with Serious Illness

For Janelle Brady, who has been a palliative care volunteer for over 11 years, ‘being there’ for her clients has taken many forms. But when she met Estelle, she knew very quickly the pair were a perfect match and they would have a close and special friendship. Janelle remembers Estelle as, “A fiery and enigmatic woman, and from the beginning our personalities just clicked.”

Estelle was 96 when she relocated to San Francisco’s Rhoda Goldman Plaza to be closer to her grandson. As a resident and a client of Seniors At Home’s Palliative Care Program, and not having a big community of support, she jumped at the chance to connect weekly with a palliative care volunteer.

Even after Estelle turned 100, Estelle and Janelle headed out into the city to run errands, shop, enjoy coffee, and explore. Over the course of four and a half years, the pair became very close and Janelle believes their companionship was something Estelle greatly needed after losing both of her daughters. Part of Janelle’s volunteer training included how to be present for others who are processing difficult personal losses.

Though Estelle passed away in December 2016, Janelle still thinks of her friend’s wisdom and spirit every day. She says, “Estelle taught me to live life to the fullest and always be grateful for what I have. Spending time with her was a truly wonderful experience.”

Changing the Medical Model of Palliative Care

For  people coping with a challenging medical condition, palliative care offers added layers of support to help relieve pain and suffering, and to improve quality of life.

Redwing Keyssar, RN, Director of Palliative Care at Seniors At Home says, “Palliative care is about taking care of people with serious illness—not just at the end of life. That’s been a misunderstanding in the public and in the healthcare field for a long time.”

Redwing explains that supporting people with serious illness means many things, including being present in their homes, supporting their families, answering questions on pain and symptom management, and helping them navigate any challenging decisions they need to make during this time.

It also means being there to provide consistent emotional support, and that’s how Seniors At Home palliative care volunteers, like Gary and Janelle, make a priceless contribution.

Gary says, “Our role is just to be present for our clients with serious illness. We take the lead from them and support them in any way that will benefit them, mind, body and spirit.”

Janelle feels that most often what her clients need is a nonjudgmental listener. She says, “Sometimes they tell me about their difficult feelings of anxiety, anger or fear—feelings that their family may shy away from because they are too hard to cope with. I like that I can be there just to listen and provide empathy.”

Become a Palliative Care Volunteer

This November, a 30-Hour Palliative Care Volunteer training will bring in a new group of caring volunteers to help individuals for those who have complex health challenges or are terminally ill.

Palliative care volunteers provide vital support to Seniors At Home clients with serious illness and their families; they also receive support themselves, from monthly meetings with professionals and a community of peers. No previous medical training is required for volunteers.

Gary says he would only change one thing about becoming a palliative care volunteer and says, “I wish I had done this training 20 years ago.”

Find out more and apply for the training >