If you want to make a difference to a terminally ill person and her family, consider becoming a hospice volunteer. You'll be in good company: The Hospice Foundation of America estimates that there are more than 460,000 hospice volunteers in the U.S. But what exactly do you do as a hospice volunteer? And do you need any special qualifications? Here's what you need to know before taking on this important job.

Generally, hospice volunteers fall into two categories: those who work directly with patients and their families and those who do background work that supports the hospice. If you are going to work in an administrative or general support capacity, such as assisting in the office, doing kitchen work, or helping to raise money and plan events for the hospice, you don't need any skills other than what's necessary for those particular jobs. If, however, you're going to interact directly with a dying person and his or her loved ones, you will need specialized training to learn communication techniques and methods of dealing with very sensitive issues. The hospice will generally provide this training, which will take about 20-30 hours spread out over several weeks.

What are some of the duties you'll perform as a volunteer interacting with patients? You might be asked to sit and visit with patients in their rooms, read to them, write letters for them, take them for walks in their wheelchairs, supervise visits with pets or therapy animals, and even provide massage if you have that skill. Also important is care for the patient's family. You might go grocery shopping or run other errands for a stressed-out family, help take care of children or pets, or simply be a shoulder to cry on when a loved one needs to vent. As bereavement-support programs are an important part of any hospice, you also might be called on to facilitate a bereavement-support group or assist with correspondence to families

Hospices rely quite heavily on their volunteers, who come from all walks of life and range in age from teenagers to the elderly. While most people can become hospice volunteers if they so desire, a hospice may discourage you from volunteering if you've recently suffered the loss of someone important to you. Grieving for your own loved one may prevent you from being fully present for the patients and their families who need you. You'll certainly be encouraged to apply to volunteer anywhere from six months to a year later, when you may have achieved some closure and are ready to take on the job.



Hospice Foundation of American, www.hospicefoundation.org

Hospice Volunteer Association, www.hospicevolunteerassociation.org