Palliative Care volunteers give the gift of gift-giving at the JGH

Palliative Care volunteers
Palliative Care volunteers Roz Brawer (left) and Jeannette Singerman (right), accompanied by Rifka Hanfling, a Palliative Care Coordinator, visit patients on the unit with a cart full of donated gifts.

“Aren’t these beautiful?” Jeannette Singerman quietly asks, holding out a box filled with handcrafted, rose-shaped soaps.

“They sure are,” replies Leah Pasechnick, an elderly JGH patient in a Palliative Care bed. With a wide smile, she grazes her hand over the clear plastic top of the box in Ms. Singerman’s hands.

“How would you like to give this to one of your loved ones?” asks Ms. Singerman, a Palliative Care volunteer. Ms. Pasechnick nods slowly. “We’ll get it wrapped up for you, and you can tell me who you’d like to give it to.”

The gesture may seem small and simple, but it holds deep meaning for patients to whom much is given, but who themselves have a limited ability to give.

That’s why, during the most recent holiday season, volunteers like Ms. Singerman spent much of their time providing patients in Palliative Care with an opportunity to be gift givers, perhaps for the last time in their lives.

Hope and Cope patient
Jeannette Singerman, a volunteer in Palliative Care, shows a package of rose-shaped soaps to patient Leah Pasechnick, who chose to present them as a gift to a loved one.

Launched by Hope & Cope in 2011, the Gift Giving Program usually gets under way in November, when new gifts (all of them donated) are collected and stored on a trolley. From December 1 until New Year’s Day, the volunteers visit patients and help them choose a few items, which are then wrapped and labeled by the volunteer for later presentation to the patients’ loved ones.

“Patients are able to choose the wrapping and who to give the gift to,” explains Rifka Hanfling, the Palliative Care Coordinator. “It allows them to feel like human beings who can still make decision and be autonomous, all while showing appreciation for the people at their bedside.”

If the patients are capable, they give the gifts to their loved ones themselves; otherwise, the volunteer does so.

“Families are receiving something they never expected,” says Ms. Singerman, “especially since the patients can no longer shop or give gifts, as they may once have done.”

Among the most commonly donated items are toys, toiletries, kitchen items and candles. This past December, there was also a selection of children’s books, ties and knitted scarves and mittens. Loved ones who receive gifts often pay it forward by donating gifts for the following year, or simply by donating funds to the program, says Ms. Hanfling.

Patients tend to express their appreciation in a different way—often non-verbally, through their broad smiles—when they see the gift cart. And when they choose the wrapping paper, their eyes light up.

“It really gives them a sense of worth and purpose,” says Ms. Hanfling.

For all of the 30 volunteers who participate in the program, it’s an equally emotional and rewarding experience. “What I get from the patient in return is so huge,” says Ms. Singerman, who’s been volunteering on the unit for 10 years.

“They become like friends or extended family to me. They’re so happy and so grateful to be able to participate in a holiday, whether it’s Hanukkah or Christmas.”

“The patients deeply appreciate the volunteers,” adds Ms. Hanfling. “They see them as separate from the medical team, so they’re able to truly relax and share their stories.”

Year round, Hope & Cope offers gifts to patients—from fluffy teddy bears to socks and blankets—to make them as comfortable as possible during their stay. Trained volunteers also offer massages to patients on a weekly basis.

“We want to provide care and comfort at every stage of life,” says Hena Kon, Communications Specialist for Hope & Cope. “Once you’re diagnosed, up until your last breath, you’re still a human being. You still need that quality of care that centres around you as a person, not you as a disease.”