The walk towards the end of life is an emotional journey.
“My husband spent his last days and passed away at a hospice. I understand what it’s like to live through that experience,” says Cathie James, 72.
Remembering the time spent with her husband, Ron James, during his time at a Calgary hospice a decade ago, Cathie was grateful to everyone who made the end a bit easier not only for her husband, but also for her family. That gratitude was not forgotten. She and her family are regular volunteers at Calgary’s Dulcina Hospice at St. Marguerite Manor, giving their time to help provide moments of warmth to residents and their loved ones.
And so on most Saturdays, Cathie and her daughter Christina Gaebel, 54, Dave Mahon, 62 (Christina’s partner), and Rheis Gaebel, 21, (Christina’s son), serve as volunteer bakers. They are one of three groups of bakers who provide freshly baked pastries weekly to those who live, work and visit at this Covenant Care manor.
“The smell of freshly baked cookies from the kitchen reminds everyone of home and of time spent with family and friends,” says Christina.
Food can be comforting, and a hospice is about providing a nurturing, caring environment, says Theresa Bellows, Volunteer Co-ordinator at Dulcina.
She says staff and volunteers try their best to fulfill a resident’s goals “whether it is baking a Boston cream pie or a saskatoon berry pie.”
The volunteer bakers view the kitchen as the epicentre of family and togetherness. “We just want someone having a difficult time to relax a bit. We just want to be there for them,” says Cathie.
Residents and family members come to the kitchen to talk and spend time with them, she adds. “We have many tears in the kitchen and yet we also have so much warmth and laughter.”
The family members have been baking, serving and visiting since Dulcina opened in 2015 and they all have their favourite recipes. Aside from cookies, Cathie says she likes to make apple crisp and Christina likes to bake tarts. Rheis, the youngest, says he likes to make strawberry cheesecake.
One of Dave’s responsibilities is to put the cookies in jars and deliver them to the rooms. He says he finds the task very rewarding “because you have something to offer and it breaks the ice with people.”
Cathie, who also helps deliver, recalls when the husband of a resident came out of the room to tell her that his wife, who had been a baker herself, loved being able to offer her visitors a treat. She felt like she was a host to friends and family visiting her, just like at home.
Cathie and her family agree they get much more out of the volunteering than what they give.
“It makes you forget about the things that you are dealing with in life,” Rheis says. “Volunteering helped change my thinking. When I go through some tough times, I just tell myself that things are just going to be great.”
The consensus among the bakers is that food is a common pleasure for people. “They thank you for the food and they are also happy that you took the time to be there for them, to listen and to have a conversation,” says Dave.
Christina says some people tell her they just want to feel the familiar surroundings of home. “Some of them even just want to turn off the TV and just like to hear people talking in the kitchen. They like the sound and smell of baking.”
Baking aside, the family also likes to encourage gatherings, games and family time in the kitchen. They think it helps to provide moments and conversations not related to illness.
As a grandmother, Cathie takes great pride in her family being able to give so much to other people. “For me, my greatest pride is my family for the volunteer work that they do.”
Whether it is card making, legacy writing, playing music, sewing, baking or making bouquets of flowers, the volunteers at Dulcina touch the lives of the residents and their family, says Theresa.
“The residents really appreciate the volunteer efforts because they bring comfort and community to them,” she says.
She also points out it is a life-changing moment for the volunteers as well. “It teaches them so much about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, about compassion, about understanding and love.”
As the youngest of the volunteer bakers, Rheis learns that even a simple smile and the very act of giving cookies to residents and their family can make a world of difference. “That’s really the goal of volunteering. You always want to try and leave this world a little better than you found it.”
All four see themselves continuing to be part of the baking program over the foreseeable future.
“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to volunteer and to give back. It is so important for me to make those last days for the residents to be the best they can be,” says Christina.