What compels a person to reach out to strangers who are entering the last phase of their life? Being a hospice volunteer takes a personality that is compassionate and giving, and Cindy Olsofka and Bob Rossi possess both these traits.
However, there’s no doubt about it-this type of volunteer work almost always comes to a sad end, and yet for Bob and Cindy that has been just the opposite. It’s not that they don’t miss the patients they have helped over the years, but more importantly they have come to deeply value what those patients have given them when they were alive.
“They have a way of making you think about life that’s for sure,” said Bob. “But I’ve learned that you have to make every day count. That’s what they are living and it’s a good way to think.”
Cindy agrees. She grew up in Illinois, and spent her career first as a dental assistant and then as a dental hygienist. It’s ironic that Cindy choose this career, because ever since she was a small child she was deathly afraid of the dentist. “Petrified is more the word,” she admits. But in grade school she had a friend whose father was a dentist, and he did a lot to help her overcome her fears. In fact, when she turned 16, he offered to train her as a dental assistant. “I figured if I just jumped right in I could overcome my fear,” she said.
But there was more to it than that. Cindy knew she wasn’t the only one who had these fears, and figured if she got into this field, she could help others, through her empathy, overcome their anxiety too. So committed was she to her work she went back to college when her daughter, Claire, was in junior high and became certified as a dental hygienist. “I always tried my best to make my patients feel more comfortable while they were at the dentist,” she said. “I was interested in their lives and wanted them to feel like we were there to help them.”
In 2007 Cindy and her husband, Frank, retired and moved to a cozy home on Birch Lake in Cassian. This industrious and giving lady had spent many summers at a camp in Boulder Junction and her grandfather’s cabin in Cable, and it was the couple’s dream to live here.
Cindy is a very energetic person, and loves to chop wood and play golf. She’s also an accomplished artist, and creates greeting cards from her paintings and drawings. But she longed to reach out to others, and that made her seek out the hospice program. “I just like helping people,” she said. “It’s who I am.”
After her training, she was soon being assigned clients, and forged friendships she will never forget. “I consider it a real privilege to come into these people’s lives,” she said. “A hospice volunteer is taught how to actively listen and that’s what I do but I feel I get so much more out of it.”
For Bob, becoming a hospice volunteer was the furthest notion from his mind. “I always wondered why anyone would want to do that,” he said, after retiring from a career in the banking industry. “I thought it must be a pretty depressing job.” But his niece, Susan Wilford, is a nurse practitioner and heavily involved with hospice work. She told Bob it was just the opposite. “I was impressed with how enthusiastic she was about being involved with hospice,” said Bob. “She told me I would get a lot out of it and she was right.”
Bob took the volunteer course in 1997, and through the 15 years he has been with the program, has met some unique individuals. “I’ve enjoyed making friends with some real characters being a hospice volunteer,” he said. “But all the people I’ve worked with don’t really dwell on end of life issues. They do worry about leaving their loved ones and want them to be well cared for, but mostly they just live in the day. They live in the moment.”
Patients in the hospice program come from diverse backgrounds and situations. Some are in nursing homes, while others may still be in their own home and have a caregiver, whether that’s a spouse or a child. Giving relief to the caregiver is a big part of being a hospice volunteer. “One lady used to leave me a list of chores,” laughed Bob. “But it’s important these people get a break. Their job is 24/7 and they need time to themselves.”
Most of the patients Cindy has visited in the short time she has been a volunteer have been in nursing homes and are elderly, however, she did have one client who was staying with her daughter. “Oh I loved that lady,” said Cindy. “She was really a good card player and she had beautiful smile and a wonderful personality as well.”
The hospice program has several prerequisites, mainly that the person wishing to enter the program only has about six months to live. So why do you volunteer in a program knowing that the person you are helping won’t be on this earth much longer? “Well that’s part of it,” said Bob. “That’s part of the training and there is no denying you do become attached to your patients. I guess that’s just natural.” Cindy agrees but looks at it from another perspective. “I think a higher power put us with these people at this time in their life,” she said. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”
The training to become a hospice volunteer is starting on Tuesday, April 24, and is a course that spans six weeks. It is held every Tuesday morning from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the Rhinelander Ministry Care Home on Stevens Street. The program trains volunteers for a variety of duties within the program. For more information call 715-361-2263.
“Some people don’t feel they would like to visit a hospice patient, but we need volunteers for lots of jobs,” said Mel Houg, director of the program. “In addition those that take the course are not obligated to become a hospice volunteer.”
But both Bob and Cindy agree, the lessons they have learned from befriending hospice patients, far outweigh any apprehension they may have had when they entered the training program. In fact, Bob has a rock on his fireplace hearth, painted with the words he has learned from being a hospice volunteer. “Make every moment count,” it says.
Cindy agrees. “You can’t do anything about yesterday or tomorrow,” she said. “So you have to make every moment, right now, matter.”
Associate editor Mary Ann Doyle is available at email@example.com.