Sometimes the depression of knowing a friend or family member is terminally ill can be lessened by the help of a listening ear.

Elizabeth and Joe Earley are good listeners.

The Severna Park couple are just two of 55 volunteers in the Arundel Hospice's Visiting Friends program. Whether for only three weeks or more than a year, Visiting Friends assigns a volunteer to a hospice patient for as long as the patient is alive.

"The volunteer goesto the house and does whatever the primary care-giver needs help with," said Sarah Totuschek, the hospice's director of volunteers.

The volunteer service offers flexibility to the primary care-giver and family: Perhaps the person caring for the patient is tired and would like to take a nap, or has a doctor's appointment and wants someone to come in and sit with the patient for a few hours.

Volunteers also spend time just talking with the family members or patient.

Eachweek, the Earleys, who have volunteered for more than seven years, spend at least three hours in the home of a terminally ill hospice patient.

"A vital part of the role is being a good listener," said Joe, 77. "In some cases, the husband and wife have been alone in the house for months. I can imagine how the patient must feel to have someone outside the family to talk to.

"Many of the patients are contemporaries of mine, within a few years of my age, so we have a lot in common."

"I have learned not to be judgmental, and I don't interpose my own thoughts on what the family or patient thinks," said Elizabeth, 71, who spent more than 25 hours with a patient last week. "You get so much more out of it than you put in. You're helping someone intheir greatest time of need -- not just the patient, but the family as well."

Severna Park resident Doris Belt has spent the last seven years visiting the homes of hospice patients. After retiring from teaching in 1980, Belt, 74, filled her free time by taking courses in the Human Services curriculum at Anne Arundel Community College. She had to complete fieldwork to get her degree.

"The hospice was the last place I worked," said Belt, who volunteered 120 hours there. "When I finished, they wouldn't let me go.

"I get a whole lot of appreciation from the people I work with," she said. "People are in a bind and need help. It's a great shot in the arm to know you're helping the patient and the family."

Belt attended a course Tuesday on arranging funerals. Volunteers often talk to the family about arranging the funeral before the patient dies, she said.

The Earleys and Belt are three of 14 volunteers over 60 involved in Visiting Friends.

During a 10-week training program, two-hour sessions offer educationon the hospice and how to care for the terminally ill. In later sessions, the focus turns to feelings; volunteers focus on their own mortality and offer advice on dealing with children's reactions to the loss of a parent.

In the next-to-last session, the volunteers meet at a funeral home to discuss the importance of funerals and rituals.

Visiting Friends often breaks the volunteer from the family shortlyafter a patient's death. "When a patient dies, the volunteer feels like he's lost a family member," Totuschek said.

The volunteer is assigned to another patient as soon as possible. For one, she said, the family sometimes associates the volunteer with the dying process. Secondly, the Bereavement Program sends other volunteers, trained in the grieving process, to help the family work through the death. "You realize you've lost a friend," Joe Earley said, "and before you know it, you're involved with another family.

"I feel a tremendous lossfor the family," he added.

The next Visiting Friends training session begins March 12.

For information, call Sarah Totuschek at 987-2003.

The Arundel Hospice will be auctioning art March 16 at AnneArundel Community College. A preview is set for 7 p.m., with the auction beginning at 8 p.m. Information: Tink Hill, 255-9529.

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