Originally, as Webster 1913
notes, hospices were shelters
which members of religious orders maintained for poor travelers. Today, hospice care
sees to the needs of terminally ill
persons and their families. The focus of hospice is not to lengthen
the life of the patient, but rather to increase the quality
of those last days. Many hospices only accept
persons which have fewer than 6 months remaining.
In Spring 1999, I did volunteer work at a hospice in association with a high school class about dying. All of the patients I attended to are now dead, whether it be from cancer, AIDS, or whatever other ailment was destroying them. So how was my experience? Soul-lifting. I beg of you: try to volunteer at one sometime. There are few better feelings than to see the smile on a dying person's face as you bring them water or talk to them about their youth. Just the knowledge that a few simple actions on my part can dramatically increase the quality of life of another is so sublime. Watching a baseball game with a bedridden man, helping a dying horse racing fan pick out the trifecta for the day's races, bringing an occupied wheelchair down the stairs and outside so someone can have a smoke - five minutes of effort can help a person live happily in the shadow of death.
Many were old, but not all. Their skin was falling off of their faces. Their bodies were covered in bruises and lesions. Their eyes were sunken into their heads. In many cases, their mind was dying at least as fast as their body. A few had regressed into infant-like behavior. None of this scared me at all, but the pity courses through you. You want nothing more than to reach out to them, to have an impact on them, to heal them. But it is their time. Everyone dies, and mortality is the cord which binds us all. Death is not a thing to fear and shy away from. The living have a duty to the dying. What we can do is turn their death into a celebration of life, and what better gift is there to give?