VNA Community Healthcare, a nonprofit visiting nurse agency, has been serving the greater New Haven and Shoreline region since 1910 with home healthcare services. The organization also offers many free and low-cost programs to 35 area communities to keep them well, such as Caregiver Support Network, VNA helpline, exercise classes and a continuum of care through their private homecare affiliate, LifeTime Solutions.

VNA Community Healthcare made 324,000 home healthcare visits annually with 653 exercise class attendees, 210 family caregivers attending support groups and 155 individual family caregiver consultations in fiscal year 2014 alone.

“For many years, our patients were disappointed that we needed to refer them elsewhere if they needed end-of-life care when they and their families preferred to stay with the agency they were familiar with,” explains Jo Ann Begley, the community liaison for Caregiver Support Network and a 12-year agency veteran. VNA Community Healthcare listened to its community and will be adding a home hospice program to its services in the beginning of 2017.

Currently undergoing the process to be licensed by the state and certified by Medicare as a hospice home health care agency, the new program, the VNA’s interdisciplinary home hospice team will include, as needed, medical personnel, dietitians, pharmacists, program directors and social workers. Finding and training a robust team of volunteers is Begley’s current mission. She is looking for those involved in complementary therapies—such as massage, reflexology, Touch Therapy and Reiki—to be a source of support for those in their last days. Activity assistants can also offer music, interactive word games, art or other projects.

Pet companions are also needed, Begley emphasizes. When a person gets sick, they unfortunately usually need to find a place for their pet. Volunteers who are willing to come to their home to feed, walk, clean up or whatever is needed can help that person keep their pet companion with them even as they go into hospice care.

“We have been using complementary therapies for family caregivers for more than 10 years. As caregivers, we tend to forget about our own health; caregiver burnout and stress is a real thing. We rallied professionals to support them; it is now a natural transition to bring these services and volunteers to our new home hospice program,” Begley says.

Volunteers will be required to go through a training process, which covers the hospice philosophy, training, roles, what to expect in the home, the interdisciplinary team, and how the team can surround the patient to support their goals. The basic training is eight hours with additional in-services that follow based on the modalities the volunteer will be offering. For example, a massage therapist would need to coordinate with the patient’s medical doctor to ensure that it is medically safe.

Volunteers are specifically needed in complementary therapies, activities at bedside, patient/caregiver companions (companionship, errands, light housekeeping, respite), administrative support, bereavement support, spiritual support and pet companions.

“It’s a natural expansion of the services we currently offer and the care we have come to be known for,” says Begley. “There is no greater honor than to help someone with their end-of-life transition.”

For more information on becoming a volunteer with the new Hospice Homecare Program of VNA Community Healthcare, contact Jo Ann Begley at 203-458-5950

 Ariana Rawls Fine is editor of Natural Awakenings Fairfield County and New Haven/Middlesex Counties. She resides in Stratford with her family.