The last wish of one terminally ill hospice patient a few years back was to be able to celebrate Christmas, her favorite holiday.
Cross Timbers Hospice volunteer coordinator Shelly Murray said it was around September or October when the patient fell very ill and didn’t feel as though she would make it to December.
But the staff and volunteers at Cross Timbers Hospice wanted to make sure that she had Christmas, Murray said. “We had a husband and wife volunteer that went to her home and hung Christmas lights, put up all of her Christmas decorations so that she could have Christmas early.”
The holidays may carry different meaning for different people, but for families struggling with a terminal illness, it’s the little things that can sometimes make a big difference during this time, said Cross Timbers social work and bereavement coordinator Leigh Ann Papin.
“For people who are facing life-limiting illness, all of the sudden everything comes into focus and the important things are not the material things, but its being able to be well enough to have time to spend with my family, enjoy the day with them,” Papin said.
Over 100 patients with a terminal diagnosis regularly rely on services through Cross Timbers Hospice. This often includes patients with heart disease, dementia, respiratory diseases, Parkinson’s disease and cancer diagnoses.
Social workers visit some patients every week or two, a nursing team is typically at the patient’s home at least once a week, if not more, and aides spend a large amount of time with patients as well, Papin said. “So if anybody on that team sees a need, then we pay attention to that.”
Sometimes the need is something as simple as a haircut or a shower — daily activities that help improve the patient’s quality of life. Volunteers will also step in and give caregivers time to go shopping and take care of errands while they spend time with the patient.
“We take that for granted, that we can get up and get our hair washed,” Papin said. “You take for granted that you have the energy to do that and some of our patients don’t have the energy to do all of that.”
However, some families are in need of a little extra relief during this time of the year. Various resources in the community help Cross Timbers link patients and their families up with programs to ensure they have a pre-made meal available on Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“Sometimes that’s a Cross Timbers organizational thing and sometimes it’s just staff members themselves saying ‘Hey, this family, we know they’ve got kids, we know that things are tight, so let’s just make a list — everybody bring something’,” Papin said. “To me, that’s kind of the spirit of what we do.”
Around 51 active volunteers of all ages go out and deliver food baskets to families, sing carols at nursing homes and make holiday cards for those using hospice services, Murray said. Many of the volunteers have also used hospice services within their own families.
“They truly just want to give their time out of the kindness of their heart,” Murray said. “It’s very important to them to be included in whatever we’re doing to help because that’s why they’re here. That’s what they want to do.”
Individuals living in nursing homes will tape the holiday cards handmade by young volunteers up on their walls, said Cross Timbers Human Relations Director Natalie Parrish.
“Sometimes that might be the only Christmas card they get and it’s just precious.” And when they hear the sound of caroling, they come alive, Parrish said.
Staff and volunteers at Cross Timbers are on call 24/7 to ensure patients get the care they need so that they can stay out of the hospital and with their families. “Maybe somebody’s pain has increased and they need to get better, stronger medication. They can make all of that happen, there’s no going to the hospital or anything,” Papin said.
In order to have enough people on call during the holidays, Parrish said a sign up sheet is made for scheduled visits; and, often times people immediately start filling in their names.
“People who are on call for those evenings and weekends and holidays, they are really giving up part of their holiday in order to do that for somebody else and that’s, to me, a big sacrifice,” Papin said.
Part of the volunteers’ dedication stems from their own positive experiences and connections formed with hospice services and staff members.
After a patient passes away, the hospice staff will keep in touch with bereavement clients for at least 13 months, if not more. Currently, there are around 360 families using Cross Timbers bereavement services, Papin said.
Each December, Cross Timbers holds a special reception called ‘Tree of Life’ for the families that have lost a loved one who was on hospice services during the past year. At the reception, individuals are invited to choose an ornament off the tree to take home, Papin said.
The ornament designs range from patriotic colors for veterans to red cardinals signifying that a loved one is visiting, and more. A staff member then inscribes the words ‘in memory of’ and the person’s name on a tag attached to the ornament.
“The thing that really impressed me was Cross Timbers says, ‘No, this is our gift to you. We know that this is special’,” Papin said, recalling her own experience with the organization more than seven years ago. “I know it’s special because I have an angel on my tree that’s in memory of my mom and every year when I take it out, I’m like, ‘She is still here in spirit’.”
Beyond the gifts, the reception gives individuals who are still grieving the opportunity and the permission to say “This is a different Christmas for me,” Papin said.
Some people don’t want to celebrate the holidays after a loved one has passed, and that’s okay, she said. Others want to do things exactly as they were done before, and that’s alright as well.
“A lot of the stuff out there — people want you to be the same as you ever were,” Papin said. “‘We want to do Christmas the same as we did’. This is taking time to say ‘This Christmas is special’.”
The reception also offers individuals a chance to meet with the team that took care of them while their loved one was still alive, allowing staff to come full circle and say, “No, thank you for letting us come into your home and thank you for allowing us to be on that journey,” Parrish said.