Hospice: Comfort and care at the end of life

As people approach the end of their lives, some may be supported by family or friends; others, for whatever reason, may be alone. Theresa Hamilton, executive director of the Revelstoke Hospice Society, reflects on her life’s work as a death carer.

Theresa Hamilton makes a socially distanced visit at a local care home. Photo: Frank Desrosiers

This article first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s December 2021 issue. Read the entire e-edition here:

As our life journey approaches its end, many of us will reflect on the things that matter most: love, relationships, the good that we did, regrets, and what we leave behind. Some may be supported by family or friends; others, for whatever reason, may be alone.

In our culture, few people spend much time thinking and preparing for death or the death of loved ones. Because of our relative privilege and good access to medical care, we are rarely faced with the deaths of young and middle-aged people. We often push away the thought of our own death as something that will happen, and will be dealt with, later. And when the time comes, we may be unprepared.

Some people in Revelstoke, however, have thought deeply about death, dying and grief, and are prepared to support community members who are reaching the end of their lives or who want to plan ahead. For them, thinking and talking about death well ahead of time makes life more purposeful and meaningful.

Chelsey and Jason Adler and girls with their dog Bri Bri visit at Mt. Cartier Court during the lockdown. Photo contributed.

Revelstoke Hospice Society staff and volunteers support community members of all ages, not just at the time of death, but often well before. The society, formed in 1994 by health care workers who saw a need for palliative care and bereavement groups in town, has branched out to support isolated seniors in the Pals program and facilitate conversations about the end of life in Death Cafés.

Theresa Hamilton, executive director of the Revelstoke Hospice Society, has made death caring her life’s work. She completed a degree thanatology (the study of death and dying) at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario then studied death midwifery through BEyond Yonder Virtual School of Death Midwifery. (A midwife for the dying does the whole pan-death experience: “the before, the doula work, the moment of death, and then the grief and bereavement. It’s a whole spectrum, she explained.”)

“I found the study of death and life losses and I just went directly into the deep end. I loved every second of it and I just thought it made so much sense. Why doesn’t everybody want to talk about this?” she said.

Volunteer program provides meaningful connections for Hospice patients

When Hamilton moved to Revelstoke in 2016 and started volunteering, Hospice was a perfect fit. Three years ago, she was hired as executive director and has brought her energy, creativity and passion to the role.

The Revelstoke Hospice Society is well known for its well-trained volunteers who “sit vigil, help the family grieve, or just generally provide respite,” Hamilton said. Around 2010, Hospice added the Pals program that connects volunteers with isolated seniors who live in their homes or in long-term care.

“The Pals program provides companionship for those whose families are unable to visit for whatever reason,” Hamilton said. “It’s just nice to develop a special connection to them and then, as they transition into palliative care, we know a bit about them. We’ve already had that trust developed. I think it serves that individual a lot better knowing a bit about them, rather than meeting them in the last couple of weeks.”

Showing how meaningful the Pals relationships can be, one volunteer wrote:

“I have written down a lot of the stories that my Pal told me over time and have shared these with the family. I would often remind my Pal of different things she had told me, and she would say, ‘You have such a good memory- no one else knows or remembers these stories. Thank you.’ I brought in three clippings from the Revelstoke Review from 1951 detailing my Pal’s wedding shower, wedding and the return from her honeymoon. The daughter had never seen this, so was delighted to have these precious details.”

Another wrote:

“My Pal could be a lot of work to get along with. We had coffee dates and I would join them at functions and trips to the library. Often, they were abrasive and salty and I would have to lighten the mood. When it came time for their death, it was the opposite and they became very beautiful. All the things we never said to each other we said in the final visit. We shared how much we loved each other, despite the age difference, we were best friends, and I was able to thank them for their impact in my life. I was honoured to be that person for them in the end.”

Before the Covid epidemic hit, Pals volunteers visited their Pals in person and helped with the walking program at Mount Cartier Court, Revelstoke’s long-term care facility. Volunteers and staff took residents out in their wheelchairs to walk around the neighbourhood, “rain or shine, Hamilton said. “Some of the ladies put on hats and lipstick. It created quite a parade around the subdivision.”

Photo: Frank Desrosiers

The Covid epidemic made connections with seniors more challenging, but the volunteers persevered. “We focused on providing window visits for residents at Mt. Cartier Court,” talking on the phone while looking at each other and sometimes writing funny messages on the windows, or communicating by Zoom or Skype. Somebody even dressed their dog up for St. Patrick’s Day and Kim Floyd’s grade four and five students exchanged letters with residents at Mt. Cartier Court, she said.

During the peak of Covid, however, most efforts involved helping vulnerable people individually. Working with Revy Helps, which delivered food, ran errands and shovelled snow where needed, Hospice volunteers provided social care by checking in on isolated seniors, Hamilton said.

Now that seniors and volunteers have been vaccinated, in-person meetings have resumed with some restrictions, a big relief to those craving that friendly close contact.

Hospice has an office in town but the main emphasis is on visits. “Hospice is a philosophy, not a place,” Hamilton said. “It provides comfort and care at the end of life so that everybody dies with dignity. It’s comfort, not a cure.”

For more information, please visit the Revelstoke Hospice Society Facebook page or website at https://revelstokehospicesociety.ca/.

Laura Stovel is a writer and the author of three books who has a strong interest in environmental and social justice issues. She grew up in Revelstoke but has also lived, worked and travelled in many countries around the world.