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Anyone who’s lost a loved one knows how difficult that process is to navigate. Amid such emotional oscillation, it’s easy to forget the needs of the professional caregivers who are guiding a dying person through the last months of their life. But these hospice workers need care, too, and Santa Barbara’s nonprofit VNA Health is there to serve this labor force.
“Caregivers are part of some extremely intimate moments, whether it’s between you and the patient or the patient and their family,” said Dairine Pearson, VNA Health’s bereavement coordinator and counselor. “You’re there as a worker, but we’re also human beings. We have empathy for people, and you inevitably forge some very emotional connections, so their passing can be difficult for caregivers too.”
This is especially true because the hospice care provided by VNA Health’s team is so thorough, as they ensure that the patient’s “whole self” is taken care of. “We have to tend to medical needs, of course, but there’s more to dying than just medical care,” said Sena Woodall, director of hospice at VNA. “We also have to attend to patient’s emotional and psychological needs, even their spiritual needs. What we try to do here is make sure that everyone comes to the end of life in a setting that provides dignity and support.”
VNA offers services meant to help patients and family members get the most out of the remainder of their time on earth. These include creative activities such as writing and collage classes, mindfulness groups, and one-on-one therapy sessions that help both families and patients work through the emotional tumult of coming to the end of life. “At the core of our philosophy is taking care of the needs not just of the patient but of the family, too. We offer a year of follow-up services for family members because everyone grieves differently. Sometimes we have people come to us six months after their loved one passed away and say, ‘I thought I was fine, but I’m not.’”
To help caregivers cope with their own emotions, VNA provides additional training and access to therapy, and begins every staff meeting with a discussion about patients who have passed away to let employees get their feelings out in the open.
Despite the emotional toll of the work, many hospice workers find their jobs very fulfilling. Many were drawn to the field after their own experience of a loved one going through the system.
“It’s definitely a calling,” said Corinne Rink, VNA Health’s volunteer services manager. “A lot of our staff found this job because of experiences — both positive and negative — they had when a loved one was dying.”
There is also a shared sense of mission for these caregivers. “What we want to do here is make sure that everyone finishes their life with a sense of dignity, no matter where they come from,” said VNA Health’s director of marketing, Easter Moorman. “Even grief can be met with life and dignity. It’s difficult, yes, but it can also be a job filled with hope.”