Death and dying are not usually considered appropriate topics of conversation at most parties, but when the guests include the volunteers of the Hospice Information and Education Assn. the subject is unavoidable and discussed with ease.
"When any of us are at a party or dinner it is inevitable that the discussion turns to death," said Mary Jane Maloof, a co-founder of the La Mirada-based group and the president of the La Mirada Volunteer Center. "But it is also about life, and part of what we are about is trying to change people's attitudes about dying."
The Hospice Information and Education Assn. was formed in 1979 to provide information and referrals, to educate the public about the hospice concept and to train lay volunteers to work with terminally ill patients and their families.
Joyce Green, president of the Hospice Assn. of Southern California, said that the La Mirada program is unique in the Southeast area for its emphasis on training volunteers and acting as an information and resource center.
Unique in Its Function
"I don't know of any other program in the area that functions the way they do," Green said. "They are also different in that they receive a lot of support from the city."
The City of La Mirada provides the nonprofit group with office space and the use of a phone. The city's director of Human Services and Public Information, Carol Cooley, conducts a session on the use of community resources for the training program.
The hospice concept originated--first in England in 1967--as a means of alleviating the physical and emotional pain of dying for the terminally ill and family, a reaction against what was perceived as the cold, impersonal environment of conventional hospitals. A main goal of hospice care in this country has been to facilitate home deaths for those who desire them. And once a patient has been diagnosed as being terminally ill, an emphasis is placed on pain control as opposed to cure.
Tania Rash, another founder of the group and the executive director of the La Mirada Volunteer Center, said the program has trained about 60 volunteers in the six years that it has been in operation. About 15 of the volunteers are currently active, and reported in September giving nearly 250 hours of volunteer time, Rash said.
The volunteers undergo an 11-week training program, which consists of a three-hour session once a week. The sessions deal with topics ranging from family dynamics and listening skills to wills and funeral arrangements. The volunteers also go on a field trip to Rose Hills Mortuary in Whittier.
"You would be surprised at the number of people who have never been to a funeral home or seen an open casket," Maloof said.
After the program, the volunteers work with existing home care agencies and occasionally in in-patient hospice facilities, arranging with families to give as many hours as they can, and providing the patient and family with practical day-to-day needs, such as transportation, household chores and letter-writing.
"The volunteers are a support unit," Rash said. "They take over when the family is unable to care for the patient or is unavailable or when they just need a break, but there should always be volunteers as a part of the hospice team."
The volunteers are given a session on getting in touch with their own feelings about death early on in the program and it is at this point that those who are not suited to be volunteers often leave the program, Rash said.
"There really hasn't been much of a drop-out rate," said Rash. "We offer people the training, but we don't elicit any commitment from them after the program. We feel we have done a good job if we have raised their consciousness."
New Class Being Formed
The group is in the process of forming a class now, Maloof said, and encourages anyone interested in being a volunteer to contact the Volunteer Center.
Binkie Fitzpatrick, 50, of La Mirada, went through the training program and has been a volunteer for five years. Fitzpatrick became a volunteer after watching a close friend die of cancer.
"I wanted to see her," Fitzpatrick said, "but because of her husband's attitude toward death, no one was allowed to see her. She died alone, and I know she needed someone."
Fitzpatrick, whose husband, Frank, is on the association's board of directors, said that society has been afraid for too long to accept and talk openly about death.
"I think the philosophical approach is changing," she said. "And as the attitudes change, people will be able to talk more. It is important that families come together. My husband has said, 'Everyone I love has shared my life, I want them to share my death.' " The Rev. Jerry Elliot, the chaplain at Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier and a member of the hospital's ethics committee, has worked with the volunteer classes. Elliot said the volunteers get more out of the experience than the satisfaction of helping people in need.