How Hospice Volunteering Has Adapted in COVID-19

Hospice Volunteer Trainings Adapt in the Era of COVID-19

An Interview with Steve Willey

We recently interviewed our Director of Volunteer and Community Education, Steve Willey, about his process of transitioning our hospice volunteer trainings to a virtual format and how the program has evolved during this time. While this pandemic has forced us to become more adaptable and innovative than ever, Steve and the hospice volunteers are committed to maintaining the quality of both our trainings as well as the services we deliver during even the more challenging of circumstances.

What does the Hospice Volunteer Training look like and how does it prepare a person for the role?

The training is a multi-day, experiential workshop experience that gives the volunteers the foundations of volunteering from communication skills, self-care, boundaries, as well as an overview of what the end of life looks like, both physically and emotionally. The training includes presentations from the various hospice team members such as our spiritual counselors, nurses, social workers and musicians. These introductions not only educate the volunteers on the multifaceted components to our services, but also starts to connect volunteers with our team and the professionals they’ll be work with.

How has COVID-19 impacted our hospice volunteer training?

I feel like COVID-19 has kicked us into the future. I have previously been reluctant to host volunteer trainings online, but because of COVID-19 I’ve had to move away from the previous multi-day, in-person format to an online format. An unexpected benefit of that has been attracting people who might not ordinarily be capable of taking the training due to not being able to leave their home during a certain time of day. Carving out their time to take the training with their busy schedule is not always possible. Transforming the training to a virtual platform has helped me rethink the training and what we would be able to offer people. And since nobody who wants to volunteer is going to come into a room with ten other people to take a training at this time, this as much of a case of necessity as innovative.

Because a hospice volunteer program is a Medicare requirement, we have had change how we do our trainings in order for Medicare reimbursements to continue. Hospice programs must be able show to Medicare their volunteer curriculum and continuing education, but just like everything else we do at Wilshire, we take it a little bit farther then the bare minimum requirements. I feel as if this is an opportunity to explore new possibilities of how we do our work, so why not take it.

The same amount of people are still dying as they were before COVID-19; our census hasn’t really changed. What has changed is that it is emotionally more challenging for caregivers because they are worried about having people come into their homes to provide respite care, they are afraid of getting sick themselves, and they’re worried about where or if they can get toilet paper. However, our ability to be flexible at this time has been impressive. We’re still going to do what we do; patients still need to be cared for, people still need support, homebound people still need rides to their appointments and to have their groceries delivered now more than ever.

Can you elaborate on what respite care looks like?

Respite is providing physical and emotional relief for the caregiver to allow them space to be more resilient. The volunteers provide the caregiver the opportunity to take a break both mentally or physically so that they can heal and come back prepared to continue to provide care for their loved one more effectively.
Our hospice volunteers are primarily support for the caregivers at this time, but it’s usually more half emotional support with patients and half practical respite support for the family caregivers. Being able to run errands and provide caregiver relief is heightened in importance because of the stress over going outside the home at all. The volunteers are more important than ever as the attempt to support the families, mitigate some of the stress, and give them a break. They still need support but they’re more vulnerable than ever because they’re afraid.

Who have been the people who have signed up for the trainings and what has been their motivation to start volunteering for hospice in the era of COVID-19?

Some of the people who take the trainings during this time do so because they have the availability, since they’re not working as much, while others have suddenly become aware that their community needs help because they’re not as busy with their own lives right now. They’re feeling like this is an opportune time to start giving back to their community. A lot of the inquiring volunteers are younger people looking into what the possibilities are. They’re becoming more aware of the world outside of their own bubble.
Due to COVID-19, we are all learning what the world looks like outside of our bubbles, which is why people are maybe wanting to volunteer a little bit more because they’re seeing themselves in context of the bigger picture. Especially here in San Luis Obispo County where we are all often a little bit insulated. This time is really a wakeup call, calling us to connect to not just our country but to the whole world. We’re all of the sudden really global and we have to deal with that someway. A lot of people are dealing with it by asking how they can help.

How are the volunteers supported at this time?

We have regular virtual meetings, four meetings a month for each area of the county. Typically, these meetings are an opportunity for the volunteers to check-in and talk about what’s going on with their patients, how they’re feeling, what support they need, and provide support to each other. Over the past couple of months these meetings have really evolved into a time where the volunteers can decompress centered more around how they are doing during this time. In a very real way, the volunteers are our family, so we check in. Since these volunteer support meetings are on Zoom, we do have more volunteers who are able to attend them since they are likely to have more flexibility in their schedules at this time.

What’s in store for future hospice volunteer training opportunities?

My next volunteer training is hopefully going to really focus hard on North Santa Barbara county. While we serve that area, we just don’t have any volunteers at this who live there. I’m scheduling the next training for July because since the trainings have shifted to virtual why not take the opportunity to train outside of our comfort zone, both physically and emotionally. Even just a few volunteers who live in Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Orcutt would be an incredible gift to us and they are so badly needed. If they could speak Spanish that would be even more incredible.

In the future I hope to schedule a day long in-person volunteer workshops where trainees and team members can connect and get to know each other, role play, share some food, and then we’ll follow up with four or five online sessions remotely so that they can do the meat of the training after connecting in person. I also plan to have prerecorded trainings available for any others who want to start volunteering and take the training sooner than the next scheduled in-person workshop.

I had prepared to do the first virtual online training last month all on my own, but at the last minute I had a change of heart and I decided to call some of the hospice team members and asked if they’d be willing to participate and they all said yes. The presentations that they did were some of the best presentations they’ve ever done. It was very emotional. I have surprised myself with how much better the training was then I thought it was going to be. Another example of a time something comes along and says “you can’t do this the way you’ve done this anymore” and your forced to think about it in a different way. We’re more adaptable then we think we are.

If you are interested in signing up for our next hospice volunteer training, please email Steve at