Hospice Volunteers Capture Patients' Stories

VITAS volunteer MarciaWhen Marcia Elving saw an ad for Life Stories Volunteers with VITAS® Healthcare, she says, “I knew that was the perfect way for me to be a volunteer.” Today, she is trained to meet a hospice patient, interview them, record their memories and create something—a scrapbook, a video, an audio recording—that can be left to their family.

Once a nurse, Marcia had changed careers and worked in a school computer lab before retiring, making her comfortable around digital equipment. She had recorded her mother on film, prompting her to recall humorous stories about family, before her mother died. Although they were too painful to watch right away, Marcia says she treasures those tapes now and loves watching them. Marcia was primed to be a Life Stories Volunteer.

Hospice volunteers bring special services to patients and their families. Some sit with a patient so their caregiver can have some free time; others may read aloud, drive the patient somewhere or make pet visits. A Life Stories Volunteer works best with an alert patient who responds to questions and enjoys the story-telling process. When the VITAS Volunteer Coordinator in Pittsburgh, Amanda Olsen, suggested to Marcia that Catherine Warzynski was a patient who would enjoy telling her story, it was a match made in heaven.

Helping Patients Leave a Legacy of Life Stories

Hospice patient Catherine with a memory bookMarcia made an appointment to chat with Catherine (known as Punkin by most, but whom Marcia calls Catherine). She discovered that Catherine’s three children wanted to be a part of the life story project. Marcia got permission from the whole family to film her visits with Catherine. Over the next three weeks the family got together to reminisce, ask questions, remind one another, laugh and finish each other’s sentences. Old photos got things going, with Marcia prompting them with the right questions at the right time. 

Marcia took the footage home and edited it, putting stories and comments into a rough chronological arc: early life, marriage, family. She made four copies, one for Catherine and one for each of her children.

But that was just the beginning. Marcia took all the notes she made while the family reminisced, made copies of some of their old photos and added photos she had taken of Catherine and her children during her visits. She created a narrative, which she printed in large type in a fat scrapbook. She covered this one-of-a-kind family album in decorative fabric, edged it in eyelet lace and titled it “Catherine’s Memory Book.”

Catherine insists there are more memories in that book than she could ever have remembered. Marcia laughs. “It was a very collaborative process. Everyone was talking, I was asking questions and Catherine remembered.”

Marcia continues to visit Catherine, even though her work is done. “I can’t not visit Catherine,” she explains. “Catherine is the sweetest person I’ve ever met.”

Now, Marcia and Amanda, the volunteer coordinator, are looking for another VITAS patient who has elected hospice while still able to enjoy life and tell their story. And Marcia is looking forward to her next life review project.

“Until I saw the ad, I didn’t realize that leaving life stories was an option for hospice patients,” she says. “What a wonderful opportunity for people to leave something happy!”

Become a hospice volunteer.


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