Getting old, as Bette Davis famously said, is not for sissies. And developing a terminal illness, as Davis later learned, is no picnic either. Yet while most of us fear sickness, aging and the end of life, hospice volunteer Michael Curtis finds solace and purpose — pleasure, even — in being with the elderly as they face death.
Curtis, 62, has been volunteering for a dozen years with Skirball Hospice in Encino, a program of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. He brings to his hospice work skills honed over many years spent helping people through difficult times — starting with his 28 years at Rancho San Antonio Boys Home, a residential rehabilitation facility for adolescent boys who have been in and out of foster care. While working at Rancho, Curtis became a licensed massage therapist and volunteered with AIDS patients through The Heart Touch Project, a nonprofit that delivers compassionate and healing touch to the ill. He has volunteered for Chernobyl Children International, several times traveling to Chernobyl to help children who still suffer the ongoing effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster. And in 2008, he became an instructor certified by the International Association of Infant Massage; he currently makes his living training others in massage techniques for use with medically fragile infants, including those born premature or drug-exposed.
As a Skirball Hospice volunteer, Curtis is part of a team that can include a doctor, nurse, social worker, home health aide, therapist, counselor and dietitian. Volunteer coordinator Lee Rothman said she asks each volunteer to commit one hour a week to a patient, yet Curtis “will visit every day if he has the time.” But it’s not just the amount of time he puts in that makes him unique, she says: “Because of his training, and just who he is, he brings a sensitivity and maturity to working with patients that other volunteers don’t have.”
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For his part, Curtis says he’s “grateful for the opportunity to sit and listen to people’s stories. … I have learned to honor and respect the incredible life experiences these people have had.” And, he adds, “I think everybody has a right — and we have a responsibility — to be with a patient in those last moments, whether it’s days, months, years.”
Patients approaching the end of their days might wax nostalgic, describing highlights of a life well lived — and these stories, Curtis says, “can be a hoot.”
“I know it sounds sacrilegious, but it’s true — people tell you some great stories,” he said, remembering how one man spoke about Woodstock.
But patients also talk about hardships they’ve faced, disappointments and, naturally, death — topics they might find hard to discuss with their own family.
Curtis fondly recalls Ruth, a patient he visited frequently during the three years she was in and out of hospice. He says he’d often just sit and listen, holding her hand, when she talked about death and dying. “She’d ask if I’d be with her, could I help her when she talks to her daughters … I felt we were connected in our souls, in our hearts.”
Ruth’s daughter Carol Stack said her mother loved the “real” conversations she and Curtis had: “We can agree, disagree, and then smile,” Ruth told her. Stack said Curtis was “consistent, persistent, observant of her needs, and the best advocate one could ever wish for.” But most important, she said, he “gave my mother a new beginning, when all we could see was the ending.”
Curtis, who is Catholic, says, “there is spirituality” to being with the dying. “And, selfishly, I learn so much about being at peace from these people.” He has volunteered at other hospices in the past, and admits he initially chose the Jewish Home as much for its convenient location as for its reputation. But, he says, Skirball Hospice “is the best, because of the great people.”
“I will do this forever,” he says. “I will somehow be connected to the Jewish Home forever.”
For more information, visit skirballhopsice.org.