SYCAMORE – Helen Maurer remembers a patient with dementia who had difficulty talking.
When music was played for her, she started to tap her foot. Toward the end of the song she said the lyrics out loud, which stunned her therapist because she had not spoken for a long time, said Maurer, a social worker for the DeKalb County Hospice in DeKalb.
Using music to comfort patients is not an unusual form of therapy for hospice staff.
“You have people who can’t read or can’t carry on a conversation, but you put a song on for them and they can sing along as if they’ve known the song previously,” said Tanya Diedrich, a registered nurse for the hospice.
Every day something happens at the hospice that amazes the staff. Despite working with terminally-ill patients with about six months to live, the nurses, counselors and social workers find the work to be a rewarding and privileged experience. The staff learn much from their patients as they make the final journey of their lives.
“I think a lot of it is that what we learn from the patient and the family is the healing that we take with us,” Paula Kunkel, certified nursing assistant for the hospice, said. “... To help us to cope, to maybe even do better things for the next patient.”
The hospice is a nonprofit Medicare-certified organization that has served the county since 1982. People with terminal illnesses who are no longer seeking curative treatments such as chemotherapy are eligible for hospice care.
The main goal of hospice workers is providing comfort. Besides music therapy, the hospice provides nursing, chaplain visits, bereavement support and other services for patients and their families and friends.
Above all, they listen to their patients. Maurer said the staff will listen to them a lot as a way of helping them with the process of dying.
“It amazes me how they will talk to you and open up to you,” Kunkel said.
One thing that helps patients cope with death is learning about it, Maurer said. The nurses and some of the staff will show them how they can be helped through each stage of death. Before all of that, however, the staff will talk with the patients and understand where they are in their journey.
“Some people are accepting and for some it’s too hard to accept death as really happening,” Maurer said. “It’s a protective denial and they need to have that in the beginning.”
The staff works in teams; sometimes their duties overlap. As a social worker, Maurer supports patients and families by providing assistance with practical matters such as finances and finding a living space.
“I try to get to know the patient,” Maurer said.
Diedrich’s role is to comfort patients during the last period of their lives as a registered nurse. She helps with medication and services such as massages and doctor visits.
As a nursing assistant, Kunkel will help with grooming the patient. She can sometimes serve as a “second eye” for other nurses.
“We get exposure to what may be going on with the body that other nurses may not be able to see on their first visits,” Kunkel said.
To deal with the stresses of the job, the staff will come together every two weeks to talk about their patients and their care plan. That is usually the time the staff supports each other, Maurer said.
One thing Kunkel learns about her patients is their attitude and strength. Patients at the hospice come from all walks of life, including farmers, university employees, blue collar and white collar workers, Maurer said.
“We have a diverse mix here and the stories are amazing,” Maurer said.
Sometimes the staff becomes part of the patient’s family. They share their memories and discover their hidden talents. Sometimes the staff sees the consequences of bad decisions.
“You get to see people reflecting on their lives and you think of your own life and what you are valuing,” Maurer said.
Each of the hospice workers has a personal story on how they came to join what Kunkel calls exhausting yet healthy work. A lot of the volunteers at the hospice are family members of patients the staff once cared for, she said. One person whose parents were cared for by the staff ended up working for the hospice.
“She went through [certified nursing assistant] training and got hired here because she was so inspired,” Maurer said.