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For 40 Years, Brattleboro Area Hospice Volunteers Have Helped People Who Are Dying & Their Families

A group of singers gathered around a man at home.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The Brattleboro Area Hospice Hallowell singers gather around Ben Hutchins at a home in Athens. The Brattleboro Area Hospice was founded 40 years ago.

Brattleboro Area Hospice is the oldest volunteer hospice care group in Vermont. Back when it started four decades ago, the group worked to introduce the concept to people around Windham County. 

“Even thinking and talking about death was a little bit taboo at that time,” said Larry Crockett, one of the founding members of Brattleboro Area Hospice. “I think the first few years of our existence as an organization we were primarily doing education of the community. We were trying to get the concept out so that people understood what it was we were trying to do.”

Hospice care was being offered in other parts of the country at the time, but Crockett said the concept of dying at home — without being overly sedated, and in the presence of family and friends — was a pretty radical idea.

A man wearing a cap looks at a camera
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Larry Crockett is one of the founding members of Brattleboro Area Hospice.

Brattleboro Area Hospice was founded in 1979, and a few years later, during the early-1980s, the federal government authorized the use of Medicare funding for hospice services.

Crockett said the Brattleboro group considered applying for the federal dollars but that would have meant charging clients for the work, as well as meeting all of the requirements the federal government set out for organizations that wanted to access the money.

In the end, Crockett said Brattleboro Area Hospice voted to remain a volunteer organization.

“You had to follow the rules that Medicare provided for hospice care,” Crockett said. “And I think that we didn’t want to have to be subject to somebody else’s decisions about how to do what we were doing.”

Over the past decade, the state has seen an increase in the percentage of Vermonters who opted for hospice care in the weeks before their death. A recent legislative report showed that the percentage of people in Vermont who received hospice care in the 30 days before they died was 46% in 2018 — up from 27% in 2009.

On mobile? Click here to view the graph.

Brattleboro Area Hospice itself has grown from about 20 people to more than 125 volunteers who sit by the bedside of a dying person; another 200 or so people volunteer in the office or at the group's thrift store in Brattleboro and with other various support groups.

"All of the volunteers and employees and staff people who have helped evolve Brattleboro Area Hospice for 40 years have contributed to what we are today. And there are so many people who have lent their hands and hearts to bring light to our community," said Patty Dunn, who works for Brattleboro Area Hospice, at a recent gathering celebrating the group's 40 years.

Brattleboro Area Hospice focuses on what it calls "the physical, emotional and spiritual needs" of people who are dying and helping family members cope — and seven years ago, that was what Judy Young van Wageningen needed when her son died in a fall. She now helps lead a group for other parents who lost a young adult child. 

“The group becomes, over the months and years, kind of like a home base," Young van Wageningen said. "It has helped us to survive. It’s been really meaningful at a time when I didn’t think there was much left of meaning in our world."

In addition to the support groups, Brattleboro Area Hospice's services include advance care planning and even bedside singing.

Hands flip through a book of music
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The Hallowell singers perform a variety of music depending on the desires of the dying person. For Ben Hutchins they sang gospel tunes.

Ben Hutchins is dying of lung cancer, and his brother Tom and sister-in-law, Beverly, are gathered near his bed. It's getting harder for Ben to make it out to church, and Beverly Hutchins said she asked the Hallowell singers to perform gospel tunes on this day.

She said the music has been something to look forward to — for everyone, not just her brother-in-law.

"It’s peaceful for him," Beverly said. "And I think they do a lot for people to boost the way they feel. Because Ben was singing along with them and he was having a good time. He didn’t think they heard him but he was singing with them and he enjoys them. And I think it’s good for the patients."

Beverly has a visiting nurse who comes by to take care of the medical needs of her brother-in-law, and Beverly didn’t quite understand how Brattleboro Area Hospice volunteers fit into that care when she first heard about them. But now she looks forward to the visits.

"It does a lot for morale I think, as far as everything goes, because you’ve got somebody else you can depend on to help you," Beverly said. "Because there are a lot of things you can’t depend on in life, but these people here are very dependable."

All volunteers with Brattleboro Area Hospice go through an eleven-week training. The next training session will be held in March.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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