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Hospice Volunteer Brings Comfort, Friendship to Dementia Patients

| Date Posted: 2/18/2014

Dan Smith

Dan Smith volunteers with FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care in one of the program’s most challenging assignments. He visits with nursing home patients with advanced dementia.

PINEHURST – Dan Smith is a big guy with a professional background as a union electrician and project manager, but don’t let that fool you.

At heart, he’s a big softie.

As a volunteer with FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care, Smith has one of the most challenging assignments the organization has to offer. He visits with nursing home patients with advanced dementia, and he loves it.

“I get so much more out of it than the time it takes for me,” he says.

Both Smith's mother and mother-in-law lived out their final days in nursing facilities. During visits with them, he often observed people who didn't have visitors and he felt especially sorry for them.

“You should have someone who just wants to come and sit down if just for two minutes, to share human contact and kindness with them,” he says.

When Smith and his wife, Karen, retired to the Pinehurst area from Delaware, he decided to volunteer and felt that Hospice would be a good place to start. He asked for the nursing home assignment, believing he could “get exposure to more people that way.”

Volunteer Services manager Susanne Martínez recognized the potential of difficulty with the assignment, but figured that Smith – with the personal experiences related to his mother and mother-in-law – probably had an idea of what he was getting into. She says he tries to learn some personal bit of information about the patient and then uses it to personalize his visit.

For example, one patient had been a farmer and enjoyed talking about his cows. Because another liked tractors, Smith tried to work that information into their visits.

“I kind of push myself on them,” he says about his patients. “I haven't had anyone to push me away yet.”

Martínez especially admires the way Smith is able to connect with patients while recognizing that they won't remember the interaction for long, maybe only for moments. As dementia or Alzheimer’s advances, patients are unable to communicate. Quite often, the patients with whom Smith visits are often difficult, if not impossible, to understand.

“It fits for some people,” Martínez says. “You just have to believe in the benefit for the patient, even when you don't see it. But Dan is happy to do it, possibly because of his personal experience with his mom and mother-in-law.”

Smith allots one day a week to his Hospice volunteer work, sometimes making the rounds to see patients at several different facilities. He has had as many as five patient assignments at one time and currently has four.

During those visits, it isn't unusual for him to stop in a hallway to spend a few moments with other facility residents who want to chat.

“I leave with mixed feelings with the sense that I have shared some of my life and time with them and they've shared time with me,” he says.

When not volunteering with Hospice, Smith “putters” around his Pinewild home and golfs occasionally. He and Karen have been married 38 years and have two children – one in Delaware and one in Colorado – and one grandchild and manage visits with them three or four times a year.

As for anyone who might be considering the type of volunteer work he does, Smith suggests just giving it a try.

“You may find out it's not the best fit for you, and you can always bow out,” he says, “but you may find out it's contagious.”

If you think you might be interested in volunteering with FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care, please contact Volunteer Services manager Susanne Martínez at 715-6012.

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