WORCESTER – When a hospice patient at a Jewish HealthCare Center (JHC) facility in Worcester passes away, a quilt is removed from the sanctuary and draped over them. Staff gathers to walk with the recently deceased through the lobby and out the front door in a ritual that was developed to show respect and the JHC community’s connection to the individual who has passed away.
“We felt that it was wrong to take those that have died out the back door hidden from everyone,” Harriett Katz, supervisor of JHC’s Hospice Volunteers, told the Jewish Ledger. “It was decided that people should leave the way that they entered – through the front door. When you talk about dignity, there it is.”
The quilt of dignity ritual is just one of the unique services offered by JHC’s Hospice Program – a program that volunteers are at the heart of.
Hospice is a concept of health care dedicated to providing comfort and support to patients and their loved ones as they approach the final stages of life. The specialized treatment is focused on providing the elderly and those with a life-limiting illness with holistic services that care for and prepare individuals and their family members – spiritually, emotionally and physically – for death. Hospice, or end-of-life care, is a relatively new concept that was introduced to the United States health care system in the late 1960s and was not permanently approved of as a Medicare benefit until 1986. The Jewish HealthCare Center became accredited as a hospice provider in 2006. Since its inception, the program has provided patients with a range of services that blend traditional medicine with grief counseling and alternative therapies.
“It’s a sacred mission,” Katz said when speaking about JHC Hospice’s work.
In February, Katz celebrated her 17-year anniversary working with the Jewish HealthCare Center. Originally a staff-scheduling manager, Katz transitioned to the Hospice program five years ago after completing an internship there in music therapy. Katz has served as a cantor since the 1970s. Her voice has been heard at Worcester’s Temple Emanuel Sinai and is a part of JHC’s Shabbat and holiday services. “Music helps the soul transition and let go,” Katz said when speaking about the role of music therapy in hospice care. “There’s a physical body and there’s a spiritual body. That spiritual body is what you’re reaching with music and that’s what you’re helping to set free.”
Music therapy is just one of the services that JHC Hospice provides to patients. In addition, JHC Hospice patients have access to massage therapists, reiki practitioners, hospice nurses and personal care attendants, a rabbi and an inter-faith chaplain, counseling, pet therapy, and, for family members, up to 13 months of bereavement support.
Katz’s role as volunteer supervisor, however, has limited the amount of time she spends as a music therapist, a position that is shared with another dedicated Hospice staff member. Hospice care began as a volunteer movement and, to remain true to its roots, Medicare requires that all hospice programs have a minimum of 5 percent of services provided by volunteers. Katz is responsible for the administrative duties associated with the volunteer program, in addition to volunteer training and oversight. Despite the rigor of the application process, which includes interviews, reference checks, CORIs, TB tests, and intensive trainings, JHC Hospice has never had a problem meeting the Medicare requirement.
“They’re giving so much,” Katz said, “but they’ll tell you that they feel it back. They get so much back. I have been blessed with having some wonderful folks come to this mission.”
Kathy Goldstein, a retired English teacher and school administrator, has worked as a hospice volunteer for over two years, a position she was drawn to due to her early experiences. When she was a child, Goldstein had visited with patients with her mother and aunts, who had worked as nurses. In high school, she volunteered at a hospital and was present when an elderly woman whom she had visited regularly passed away.
“I found myself inspired by the work,” Goldstein said. “When people have to face the inevitable, at some point, a certain peace rests over them. I think it’s also a time when people take a longer look at what their life was all about.”
Goldstein visits with hospice patients, in hospitals, nursing homes and at their home. Goldstein’s home visits provide respite to their primary caregivers, who are oftentimes so focused on the needs of the person in their care that they forget about their own. The visits allow family members to leave the house to do necessary errands, or sometimes it allows them to take a shower and a nap.
“While you are with that patient,” Goldstein said about her visits, “you are present and in the moment. You are not thinking about anything else. Sometimes I read to them and sometimes I just hold their hand. The compensation is the inspiration that I draw from spending time with them and their families.”
A lover of biographies, Goldstein found through her work that everyone has a story. Honoring the life stories of hospice patients is another unique aspect of JHC’s Hospice Program. The Personal Life Stories program trains hospice volunteers to record life stories, at the request of family members, through interviews and the collection of photographs and memorabilia, which is compiled into a book that can be handed down through generations. JHC Hospice’s care for patients extends beyond their death through other unique services as well. Every few months family and staff gather for a remembrance service to honor and celebrate the lives of those who have passed away.
In October, a memorial garden was created on the JHC campus. Stones are placed there in honor of the deceased, as is customary in the Jewish tradition to show that those who have passed are loved and remembered.
JHC Hospice volunteers are equally honored for the comfort and compassion they have shared with patients and their families. Katz routinely organizes appreciation events for hospice volunteers, especially during National Volunteer Week in April and National Hospice Month in November.
JHC Hospice serves all members of the Worcester community and offers faith-based services and counseling that are requested by patients and their families. The staff and volunteers of JHC’s Hospice program, however, are true to the Jewish custom of accepting death as a natural process of life and supporting and honoring those who are facing it as a full member of the community.
“The hospice program here is led by people whose hearts are in the right place,” Goldstein said. “It provides an opportunity for volunteers to have a lot of support and to meet other people of the same mind and the same inclination.”
“We are a team,” Katz added. “Everyone is all together on this and the families are just thrilled because we’re really here for them.”
Harriett Katz, supervisor of Jewish HealthCare Center’s (JHC) Hospice Volunteers.