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Writing a life story brings comfort to grieving families

Hospice volunteers are needed locally.

There’s an abundance of volunteer opportunities at long-term care facilities across Douglas County, everything from calling bingo to visiting with residents.

However, there’s a particular need for volunteers in a specialized area of care – hospice.

Knute Nelson serves a 12-county area and there are about 20 volunteers who currently help out with hospice patients in the area, but there’s a need for more volunteers in the Alexandria area.

Hospice volunteers can help with everything from clerical work to hand massage and there’s one opportunity that creates a lasting memory – writing a patient’s life history.

“We try to have every patient participate if they want to,” said Amy Allen, resource development coordinator for Knute Nelson.

“Writing someone’s life history gives the volunteer a purpose for being there. It makes it more comfortable to volunteer because you know what you’re doing and it also gives them closure if they’re not comfortable staying to the end [of a patient’s life]. It gives the volunteer a purpose, which I think is important for volunteers. They want to feel good about what they’re doing,” Allen said.

A 91-year-old retired orthopedic surgeon in Alexandria – affectionately called Dr. Paul – is volunteering his time writing life histories for hospice patients.

“He will talk with people about their life histories, then he’ll do voice-to-text and write their histories for them and that’s his purpose,” Allen said. “People love when he visits. It’s just wonderful because he feels like he’s contributing.”

The process for writing a patient’s life story includes meeting with the family before the volunteer meets with the patient to get to know the family and its dynamics. At that point, the family can ask questions and request that the volunteer writer focus on certain stories.

“We let the patient drive how much they want to do,” Allen noted.

The life stories leave a collection of memories and can become a source of comfort for grieving families.

“[In the write-ups, the patient] …would talk about a family vacation and now, families would say, ‘Look what Dad remembered after all these years.’ It’s been very, very touching and a very nice thing,” said Judy Thielke, life enhancement director for Knute Nelson.

Writing a person’s life history is just one area of volunteer opportunity.

“Volunteers can also help with clerical duties or write cheerful notes to send to hospice patients,” Thielke explained. “It doesn’t always have to be sitting beside the bed, because some people are not comfortable with that.”

Volunteers can help with gardening, pet therapy, photography, music and more.

Currently, there’s a need for handmade quilts.

Allen explained that it would be wonderful for hospice nurses to have a nice quilt to place over patients who have passed away as part of a bedside ceremony.

Hospice volunteers must be 18 years old; successfully complete the Minnesota background study, interview and training process; and commit to one year of service.

Allen said they’ll work to accommodate each volunteer’s lifestyle – working around golf schedules, work commitments, and they encourage snowbirds to volunteer too.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact Amy Allen at (320) 759-1270.

“When I meet with people, I find out what makes them excited, what will keep them interested and why they are doing this,” Allen said.

“Even people who are half-interested should call to learn more. Then, they can decide to volunteer or not; no pressure,” she said.

Amy Chaffins

Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.

(320) 763-3133