It was just a conversation about ice cream, but it was a breakthrough. Recent UMW grad Lily Olson ’18 had visited one of her favorite hospice patients for weeks. She’d sat by his bed and held his hand, but few words had been exchanged. Until the day she discovered that if she spoke directly into his right ear, he could hear her.
“It was the most fulfilling moment of my internship,” Olson said. “I’m so honored I could be a comforting presence at the end of his life.”
UMW psychology majors have experienced these types of poignant moments for the past two semesters, thanks to a partnership with Capital Caring, a hospice and palliative care facility in Fredericksburg. Interns visit the center each week, comforting people in the final stages of life and helping survivors cope with their grief. Olson’s patients seldom recognized her from visit to visit, she said, but she remembers them – their stories, their personalities, their impact on her own life.
“Our interns watched several of the individuals they had grown close to pass away and were able to deal with and process their own grief,” said Psychology Professor Miriam Liss, who supervised the program last year. “It helped that they felt as though they had really made a difference in making these clients’ lives better.”
Students are trained – exploring the perspectives of dying, hospice care principles and resources for dealing with grief – before coming face-to-face with patients and families. The work might seem inherently depressing, the interns said, but there’s something inspiring, even uplifting, about offering companionship and a quiet dignity at the end of a life. As much as hospice is about death, it’s also a celebration of life.
And it’s almost always rewarding, said Capital Caring’s community outreach and volunteer coordinator Jenna Cooley, who welcomes the chance to work with UMW students. “We feel like they bring so much to the table,” she said.
Senior Lindsay Innis, who works at the center, has learned to keep conversations light and steer clear of current events, since the advanced dementia patients she visited could get upset when they were unable to recall specifics about their daily lives, and often times, about Innis herself.
“Even if [they] don’t remember me … I can tell when I’m leaving that maybe I somehow brightened their day,” she said. “That feels valuable to me.”
Senior Peyton Crickman works on the bereavement side of Capital Caring’s services. He helps run grief counseling groups for children ages 5 to 10, using arts and crafts to help them process their feelings. “A lot of them don’t get to talk about their loved ones that have died,” he said. “We give them a space for that.”
Capital Caring has provided counseling, as well as hospice and palliative care, to more than 100,000 patients and their families since 1977. Its partnership with UMW, which started last spring, is relatively new, but Liss and Cooley agree it’s been positive.
“The interns learn early on … that this is about truly helping people not only be comfortable but have moments of joy and connection,” Cooley said. “That’s really what hospice ought to be about, and it’s a beautiful thing.”