Mary Jo Baumann has thought about the future for a long time. As a consultant who helps advise companies on their retirement plan for employees, she’s always looking ahead.

But in 2014, she got an unexpected call: her father’s health was slipping. He needed to be put in hospice care.

Baumann, 55, didn’t really know what to think. “Isn’t hospice a dark and dismal place where people go to die?” she recalled asking.

It’s a common misconception that she quickly moved past when she saw how her father was cared for over the next two months until he died. In fact, she was so moved and reassured by what hospice care could accomplish, she wanted to get involved.

She responded to an ad looking for volunteers for Novant Health Hospice & Palliative Care’s Giving Gardens program. It turned out the volunteers were converts like her.

Gloria Peper, 74, has been volunteering for six years, after being inspired to join by the care given to her mother. Pepper, a retired social worker, finds joy in assembling and delivering flowers to hospice patients. Likewise, Baumann has found her niche in telling the stories of her patients through LifeBio, a journaling project that helps patients reflect on their lives.

Focusing on the whole person

Battling the misconceptions of hospice is a responsibility many volunteers share even when their shifts are over, said Misty Santiago, the volunteer coordinator for Novant Health Hospice and Palliative Care. It’s not uncommon for everyday conversations to turn into opportunities for awareness building. A few examples:

  • Some people may think of hospice as a place rather than a service. But at Novant Health, patients get to choose if they’d like care in their own homes or at hospital locations.
  • Also, it’s not uncommon for patients to leave hospice care and live on for years.  
  • Some think hospice is meant only for cancer patients or that it’s too expensive. The reality: All kinds of patients use hospice, and it’s often covered by Medicare. These are just some of the many misbeliefs volunteers encounter.

With more baby boomers entering their senior years, the demand for long-term medical care continues to rise. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization reported that almost half of Medicare patients in 2016 (around 1.4 million patients) sought hospice care, and those numbers have steadily increased over the past few years.

“Hospice care focuses on giving patients a better quality of life by providing care that focuses on the whole person and not just their disease,” said Sheri Lowe, a manager at Novant Health Hospice & Palliative Care. “We do everything from lending a hand in our patients’ daily care to showing empathy and compassion for patients and their families facing emotional difficulties.”

Some families think that saying yes to hospice means relinquishing hope for their loved ones. But in life’s last moments, hospice can turn into an opportunity for friends and family to celebrate life and strengthen bonds.

Everyone’s got a story

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Baumann with Doris Hartis, who was the first patient she profiled as part of the LifeBio program with Hospice. Hartis was previously in hospice care, and has graduated from the program.

So far Baumann has written the biographies of three patients. Their stories made her realize the value of taking the time to get to know patients, and perhaps heed their advice.

“My grandfather came from Germany and I regret that when I was young, I didn’t take the time to get to know who grandpa was, so I’m trying to make up for that,” she said. “Having a journal of their legacy told in their own words and being able to leave those stories to share with future generations is so exciting.”

The LifeBio project is something any hospice patient and their families can ask for. Volunteers like Baumann interview the patient over several visits and present the final story to the patient and their families.

“One women I interviewed wanted to preserve herself digitally so she was videotaped answering my questions. And one gentleman wanted me to write down a list: countries he’s visited, homes he’s owned, every job he’s had, and every car he owned,” Baumann said.

Takeaways and life lessons

Many have shared what they’d tell younger versions of themselves or do differently. She’s learned that while there isn’t one piece of wisdom that resonates for everyone, there are life lessons that can help all of us find meaning in our lives today.

Wondering, ‘what if …’

Baumann wrote a biography for a highly intelligent woman who had one regret: She didn’t take the risk to do what she’s always wanted to in life. She graduated high school and wanted to go to college and join the military. But her father told her those places were not for women.

“So she ended up becoming a housewife with kids who she loves dearly, but she shared the regret and said she’s wondered, ‘what if,’” Baumann said.

The takeaway: You may encounter less regret if you put your faith in yourself.

You don’t need that much ‘stuff’

It’s people, not stuff that matters in the end. Whenever Baumann asks her patients of their happiest memories or proudest moments, their answers center on moments with others, not on materialistic matters.

“I often forget in my busy little world,” Baumann said, “that it’s the experiences that connect us to life and not objects.”

Final lesson: Hospice is not about death. For Baumann, it’s about helping people connect to the best parts of living.

For more information on volunteering for hospice care, call 704-384-6478 or fill out an application form.