Tomorrow is not promised to anyone. Those words stood out starkly in an interview with Carmen Verdugo, the softspoken  coordinator of Palliative Programs with Carefor, in Hawkesbury.

Perhaps you think you already know what palliative care is. Chances are, you don’t want to hear about it.

But Verdugo is doing her best to communicate to the Prescott-Russell population that palliative care really is about: care.

“We all know that we will die one day. But when we learn that we may be facing the end of our life sooner than we expected, a process begins. We start to feel different and although we are not what we would call “actively dying”, that time of diagnosis is the best time to contact us,” advises Verdugo.

But who wants to contact palliative care so fast? Isn’t that what you do at the very end, when death is very close?

No, says Verdugo.

Most of us, she explains, are still trying to demystify dying and – along with that – what palliative care really means.

“We have such a fear not just of dying, but of the dying process. In people’s minds, it is an ugly thing and there is lots of fear associated with it.”

Helping the person with the life-limiting diagnoses and his or her friends and family is crucial. It is at the time of diagnosis that support is very much needed, Verdugo says.

What one learns from a conversation with her is that perhaps we need to re-think palliative care, which, as it turns out, is really about helping people to live.

And Verdugo has another mission: she says that while she has a great volunteer team, more volunteers are needed to work with Carefor’s Palliative Services.

She offers information sessions for those considering volunteering and for those who want to pursue the volunteer opportunity, training is provided.

“Our palliative care volunteers can have a very intimate relationship with those they are helping. This is a special time in a client’s life. We make sure our volunteers are ready in every way possible.”

It does take people with a very special mindset, she says.

Volunteers who have a strong sense of themselves and can give of themselves make the best palliative care volunteers.

“For many people facing life-limiting illness, it is a time to talk about everything. There are no filters. It can be a time when so many beautiful things open up for people on that path. It can be a turning point, when people revisit their lives, have conversations that they need to have and begin to see things in different ways.”

People can become liberated from their fears as they move through the grief process, described so eloquently by the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 milestone book called, “On Death and Dying. The five phases of the grief process, outlined by Kübler-Ross, are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. If individuals facing life-limiting diseases go through these phases, so, too, do the family members around them.

Volunteer Monique Tessier says that her initial motive for volunteering was wanting to help those in need. During the past four years of volunteering, she has done home visits and worked with individuals in the Palliative Day program.

“I have learned about serenity, their patience, their resilience in the face of unforgiving illnesses,” Tessier writes.

“I give a little love, and receive much more,” she concluded.

Verdugo explains that volunteers can visit individuals in their homes and reduce isolation. She cites husband-and-wife teams who volunteer together. As an example, while a husband stays with a male who is ill, the volunteer spouse might take the client’s wife out for shopping or lunch. These are “win-win” situations, Verdugo says.

Volunteer Francois Landry says that attentive listening, a smile, and easy conversation are sometimes the greatest gifts that a volunteer can give to an individual who needs some support.

“Since I have been volunteering with Carefor, I appreciate my life much more, and I understand how fragile life is – and its value,” she writes.

In addition to the written volunteer testimonials Verdugo shared with The Review – there are the testimonials, of course, from those receiving help from Carefor.

Clients refer to the Palliative Day program, the home visits and gratitude for someone to be with them and listen to them.

“The listening ear, the support and comfort I received from Carefor helped me enormously and I am proud of myself to have had the courage to accept the help that was offered,” wrote one client.

The willingness to accept help and to let go of the idea that we have to suffer alone is something that people need to work on, Verdugo says.

“People always think they can do this alone, when with support and help, there is less fear, less isolation and the quality of life for the client and for the family and friends can be so much better,” Verdugo says.

Caregiver burnout is quite common. In a lot of cases, referrals come to them late, because people wait too long to ask for help.

But there is no need for a doctor’s referral to ask for help from Carefor, Verdugo says.

“We so very much want people to know that this help is here for them. We have a day program and of course, our services and our volunteers,” Verdugo emphasized. There is no cost to access any of the services, she notes.

Verdugo herself trains palliative care volunteers and home visits are scheduled. She checks in with volunteers weekly to keep in touch with them.

Isolation can be such a problem in a rural area such as Prescott-Russell, Verdugo adds – not to mention the isolation that is inevitable when someone is on his or her own, perhaps living alone, with no family members nearby.

Carefor, and its volunteers, can make a difference. As one volunteer writes, the “complicity” and sharing that takes place between clients and volunteers is like no other. One person wrote that her volunteer work in a client’s home has “brought back the skip in my step, and the joy back to my heart . . . there is a lightness of being giving this service which gives me a reason to smile.”

If you would like to learn more about being a volunteer in Carefor’s palliative care programs, information sessions take place on March 1 and on March 8 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. To register, contact Carmen at 613-632-0418, extension 323, or email: [email protected]