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A Heart for Volunteering


Susan Rose bids farewell after 42 years of service.

By Lin Sue Cooney, director of community engagement

Susan Rose had just lost her father-in-law when “three angels” came up with the idea to start a not-for-profit hospice in Arizona.

And just like that, Susan became Hospice of the Valley’s first volunteer 42 years ago. “It became my passion,” she says, “because it cares about the family. It cares about all parts of the family.” She felt her experiences and challenges caring for her father-in-law during his final days could be valuable to other families.

As a 30-something volunteer, she still remembers her first patient, a mother of four who was dying of cancer. While watching TV, Susan found out the family’s house had burned down. “I went out there with blankets, pajamas and stuff, and took the kids and went to a hotel so they had some place to be.” Susan also tried to create fun memories for the kids. “I used to take them out on picnics with my four children.”

It’s with bittersweet feelings — for us and for Susan — that it is time to say goodbye. At 76, the avid scuba diver is trading the desert for Laguna Beach, where she will be able to swim, play tennis, ride her bike and visit her grandkids year-round.

The Phoenix resident and lifelong volunteer hopes to “find something in California,” but “it won’t be the same,” she adds quickly. I sat down with Susan to look back at her remarkable service, which included home visits, pet therapy, Speakers Bureau and spending time at our Gardiner Home for dementia patients.

“I think one of the best things about volunteering for Hospice of the Valley is you get to learn about what made people’s lives special, and also, their families,” she says.

 In some ways, HOV’s legacy of caring since 1977…. is Susan’s legacy, too.

On changing society’s perception of hospice:

“When I first started talking about hospice 40 some odd years ago, it was sort of like talking about cancer — if you said it, you might get it. So you didn’t want hospice because that was the end. And that’s so not the truth. The best thing that’s happened in these years is that doctors have accepted the fact that we can help their patients live a much better quality of life if they will let us assist them…  Patients so appreciate what we do to make their lives better. No one says they wish they hadn’t come to hospice so soon. They say, ‘We wish we’d found you earlier.’ ”

On becoming a hospice volunteer:

“It does take a special person to be a hospice volunteer.  I’ve always said, ‘You have to accept your own mortality.’ And you have to recognize the joy that you get from bringing joy into someone else’s life. Working with people at that stage in their life, that’s what really brings me joy.”

On the rewards of volunteering:

“The minute you walk in the door and you see these delightful people and you get to bring some joy into their lives, maybe by playing a game with them or singing with them or even just holding their hand, it brings a feeling that you can’t get elsewhere else and I walk out fulfilled. It’s like somebody filled out that cup that was empty…  I just feel like I was enriched tremendously in my life for having the privilege of volunteering with Hospice of the Valley.”

On HOV expanding beyond hospice care:

“As needs have been seen and identified, the agency has taken them on as their own.” For example, before Hospice of the Valley began offering no-cost senior placement, families “had to go all over the Valley to find something that was appropriate for their love ones.” By offering palliative care, “we’ll find families the resources they need until it’s time to be with us… We grew in what we did and how many people we could care for, but we never changed how we cared for them. We never outgrew our mission.”  

On our Gardiner Home and dementia care:

“I see the love that staff has for their patients and how they really become a part of their lives and how they try to make their lives meaningful for as long as they can. One of my favorite things at Gardiner Home is the mechanical pets. All of sudden, patients are talking, they’re singing or communicating with this robotic dog or cat. I’m really proud of our dementia program. We now know how to make patients’ lives better and how to assist them and make them not so afraid and so isolated and lonely. And we can help the families, because the families are at a loss, and they so want to communicate and they feel incapable of doing it.”

On the importance of advanced health directives:

“I was able to know my father’s wishes, and if I hadn’t, he may not have had the death that he wanted. I could have worried about it forever. One of the most important things we do is help people talk about death and help them realize the importance of talking about it and letting their loved ones know what they want. I think that’s one of our biggest missions. It’s a tremendous gift.” 

On HOV’s special bond with volunteers:

“They always think about the volunteers, ‘Are they OK?’ It’s always ‘thank you, thank you.’ No. We’re the ones that need to thank hospice for remaining a viable organization. Even as it’s grown, it hasn’t changed the focus. The focus has always been on the patients and the family, and that remains.”