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For the volunteers at Niagara Hospice, it’s a fulfilling labor of love

Julia Goldbach has volunteered with Niagara Hospice for more than 20 years.

“People ask me, ‘How could you do that?’ ” the Middleport resident said. “But, once you go to a training session and you see all of the different avenues that are available to volunteers for hospice, you really ask, ‘How could I not do this?’ You find the place that’s right for you.”

Barbara Reed, a retired registered nurse, has been a hospice volunteer for 24 years and she echoes Goldbach’s thoughts.

“I feel so blessed to be part of this loving, caring group,” the Lockport resident said. “The people at hospice give so much. They go beyond the call. If something needs to be done – they just do it. They really care about people.”

Niagara Hospice will hold spring training for new volunteers from 5 to 9 p.m. April 26.

Volunteer activities are wide-ranging and involve both patient- and non-patient-related tasks. Patient-related efforts might include simply holding conversations and reminiscing, or running errands for the patient’s family, for example. Non-patient-related jobs might include helping with community outreach, clerical tasks and fundraising efforts.

Visits may take place in the patient’s or caregiver’s home, at Niagara Hospice House in Lockport, or at area long-term care facilities.

The most immediate volunteer needs include making home visits to patients in the Gasport, Newfane and Niagara Falls areas; and visiting residents at Rebekah’s Pathway at Odd Fellows and Rebekah Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Lockport; at Hospice at Jeanne’s House at Northgate Health Care Facility in North Tonawanda; and at David’s Path at Schoellkopf Health Center in Niagara Falls.

“It’s your presence, offering a listening ear or a hand to hold – that’s it in a nutshell,” said Goldbach, whose husband, Vinnie, is also a volunteer. “It’s not just about sitting with someone who is dying, it’s about respect for life right up to the last minute and it’s about being involved with the family, during and afterwards.”

Goldbach is involved in a number of hospice services, including the recently reconvened Niagara Hospice Vigil Team, which provides a compassionate and comforting presence in a patient’s final hours. A hospice registered nurse case manager will call Goldbach or another of the three team captains when a patient or family may benefit from additional support at this most difficult time. The team captain then organizes a volunteer vigil for whatever time is needed – wherever the patient is.

These specially trained volunteers provide support, encouragement and comfort to a patient and/or family when death is gauged as imminent. Often, the caregiver fears being alone with the patient at home at this time. This service also is helpful when the patient has no family or the family lives far away and it ensures the patient will not die alone.

“Hospice believes no patient should die alone,” said Bernadette Ford, another Vigil Team captain. “I know if it were me, I wouldn’t want to die by myself.”

The North Tonawanda resident said she had one vigil recipient who had no family “and I sat with her until she died.”

“I sat with another patient who was alone, waiting for her family to come in from out of town,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to sit there and make a difference in someone’s passing. That’s how I feel about it.”

And, the vigil service may benefit family and friends as well.

“I remember a home visit, several years ago, when there must have been 15 family members in the living room and a daughter took me into the bedroom to see her mother, who was dying,” recalled Reed, who also is a Vigil Team captain. “With so many people there, I thought, they don’t need me – what am I doing here?

“But the daughter later told me, ‘If you hadn’t been there, it would have been complete chaos,’ ” she recalled. “I think it’s just knowing they have the presence of hospice, that we know what to do and they don’t have to worry about it, because it’s such a stressful situation. Those final 12 to 48 hours are when they really need this support.”

Patricia Degan, Niagara Hospice’s director of marketing, public relations and volunteer services, said the Vigil Team is an offering unique to her organization.

“We don’t know of any other organization in Western New York who offers Vigil Team care,” she said.

Reed also recounted the many ways volunteers help patients and their families in the days, weeks and months leading up to death.

“It’s about accepting what is there and helping provide the best quality of life for that time period,” she said. “This takes so much burden off of the caregiver. For example, you might visit patients in their home, so that the caregivers can go grocery shopping or get a cup of coffee with friends. They are caregivers 24 hours a day and they need support.

“I’ve also taken patients out shopping and given them a chance to do the little things they couldn’t do otherwise,” she said. “When you visit them and they have a big smile and say, ‘It’s so good to see you today,’ well, you can’t beat that. It gives you such a good feeling to help someone.”

And the support continues following the patient’s death, Degan pointed out.

“We follow up with the family for 13 months following a patient’s death,” she said. “And we don’t believe any other organization offers that, either.”

Degan said she hopes more people will become aware of all hospice has to offer.

“After a patient dies, so many times, families will say, ‘We wish we had called hospice sooner,’” Degan said. “Sometimes, when we only see patients for their final hours or days, it breaks our hearts, because so much more could have been done to improve the patient’s quality of life.”

Niagara Hospice’s staff, volunteers and partners in care have served more than 25,000 Niagara County residents since 1988. Hospice is a way of caring for patients with end-of-life illnesses and supporting their families and loved ones through the illness and dying process. It’s appropriate for people with any advanced stage illness – not just cancer – where the prognosis is a life expectancy of approximately six months or less, if the illness were to run its normal course. Some patients receive care beyond six months.

Niagara Hospice also offers a speakers bureau, which helps spread the word that choosing hospice is not about giving up hope but, rather, about getting help. Studies cited by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization show that terminal patients live from 20 days to more than two months longer in hospice care than those without the service. Hospice care offers more comfort, care and visits from hospice professionals that improve quality of life.

Niagara Hospice is a not-for-profit organization. Hospice care is a fully covered Medicare and Medicaid benefit and most private insurers also include a hospice benefit, but Niagara Hospice does not turn anyone away who cannot afford care.

Call Niagara Hospice at 439-4417 or visit to learn more.

For more information about volunteering and to register for the spring training, call 280-0748. The training site will be determined at a later date.