It takes a village to care for people struggling with an illness and their loved ones. In Canada, multiple non-profit organizations and volunteer groups provide outstanding services behind the scenes, often without the recognition they deserve. Each of these organizations are unique in their own way and often rely on the generous contribution of volunteers to provide essential and compassionate services in their communities.
Since 2007, Palliacco’s mission is to contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of cancer patients, patients at the end of life and their caregivers as well as bereaved persons, by offering them support, accompaniment and respite services at home. They serve the residents of three regional county municipalities in the Laurentian region of Quebec (Pays-d’en-Haut, Laurentian and Southern Antoine-Labelle). Palliacco’s services are free and bilingual.
With the aim of listening and providing accompaniment, Palliacco – named after the words “Palliative” and “Accompaniment” – offers a variety of services at home, in long-term care centres or in their three office locations. For example, they offer different support groups: to talk about grief, to relax through yoga or breathing, and to support each other, for example if they have cancer or are in remission. There is also a group for “proches aimants” (a word play on the word “caregiver” in French). Additionally, they offer respite care, individual support and accompaniment and even massage therapy at home.
“Often times, people are surprised to know that these services are offered, that they exist” says Céline Séguin, Services Coordinator at Palliacco.
Along with all those services, Palliacco also offers accompaniment training for their volunteers. There are two training sessions offered every year and it is mandatory for potential volunteers to follow a training course because Palliacco wants to ensure that people are the right fit: “Some people sign up for the training without imagining what it involves, what it can touch inside of us to accompany someone who is about to die, for example. It is as if it makes us touch our own death. There are people for whom it is not suited.” (Céline Séguin, Services Coordinator at Palliacco). Those words are echoed by Minnie Richardson, volunteer at Palliacco: “It’s challenging to be so close to somebody who is so vulnerable and close to death. It brings up all kinds of emotions.”
For the volunteers who offer at-home respite for caregivers, an important part of the training is about communication, because as Céline Séguin says: “our volunteers are there to listen and be present.” Palliacco’s respite service is designed to have a volunteer assigned to someone and have them be present at their house for blocks of four hours per week in order for the caregiver to have some time to run errands, or to simply rest. Those in charge of accompaniment try to ensure that people get matched with someone with whom they have a natural affinity – for example, two people who like to garden.
For Minnie Richardson, volunteer at Palliacco, her match is very positive. She is assigned to a lady nearing the end of life who does not speak English or French very well. But that did not bother Minnie because, while they can talk about the basics, “the conversation is not where it’s happening, it’s more being in the present with her. There were looks that we exchanged that said quite a lot.” Despite not being able to communicate much, Minnie experienced moments of tenderness and she remembers some moments fondly. Speaking about the lady she is assigned to, she said: “The last time I saw her, she was in quite some pain but she would look up at me and have these bright eyes and her face would light up and as I was leaving, she would say “Anytime! Come anytime!” Her caregiver had left out some special biscuits and when I ate the biscuits that had been left out, she said “Bravo! Bravo!” because she was so pleased I’d eaten the biscuits. It’s the sweet, simple things.”
While it can be a challenging experience at times, Minnie Richardson describes the rewards of accompaniment: “There’s a human connection and life is still very much there. There’s no pretending about much. It feels like an act of love to be there for someone with what they’re going through – if they’re in pain, they’re in pain, and you have to be there for that. If they go for a nap and you’re not in the same room as them, that’s part of the work. It’s not always easy but it’s nourishing. I think it can connect you to your own humanity and mortality and it reminds you that we’re all going to end up in a similar situation. It’s humbling and puts things into perspective.”
Thanks to their volunteers “without whom Palliacco would quite simply not exist” (Céline Séguin), the organisation is able to offer some respite to caregivers, as well as a space for people who are sick or grieving to share what they are going through and be heard.
More recently, Palliacco has also added a new service aimed at youths 18 and under who have cancer and need support, or who are about to lose a loved one.
As their services are expanding and Palliacco keeps pursuing its mission to help maintain the quality of life of persons with cancer, with terminal illnesses, of caregivers and of those who are grieving, by providing support, accompaniment and respite services at home, Céline Séguin has one wish: that people know that “Palliacco is there for them, to support them, and that they work with diligence and compassion.”