By: Sangita Devi Dasi, RN
A Vaishnavas Care Team is a group of devotee volunteers within your temple or community who assist members of your congregation when they are acutely or chronically sick or even terminally ill with an end-of-life illness. Even when a devotee is sick with a “flu” or has had an accident, is hospitalized for any reason, or needs surgery, help is often required from the community. Visits from our volunteers, bringing prasadam meals or maha-prasadam from the Deities, flowers, or photos of the Deities are acts of kindness and very appreciated. After asking permission, chanting japa, or chanting soft bhajans, or quietly reading from Srila Prabhupada’s books (such as Krsna Book) at the bedside of the Vaishnava patient may be some other ways to serve the devotee at the time of illness. (There are other suggestions listed in Step Two below.)
It is not difficult to form a team and it is not as time-consuming to be a Vaishnavas Care volunteer as one might imagine. Since 2000, one of the main goals of Vaishnavas C.A.R.E. has been to have a Vaishnavas Care team within each and every ISKCON temple or community around the world. The temples who have taken the time and effort to form a team have found it to be extremely helpful when they suddenly require devotees to lend a hand when there is a need. Even when the devotee patient has his or her own family, it is comforting to the patient and family members to have other Vaishnavas come forward when assistance is required. We have found that the expression, “It Takes a Village!” is very applicable with this service. To have a team of volunteers organized, trained, and “ready and waiting” is extremely important!
There are several Vaishnavas CARE teams in various ISKCON temples/communities in North America and the need is spreading around the globe. If you desire to form a team in your area to be organized and ready to assist a Vaishnava, if and when the situation arises, we have listed some practical steps you can take to get started. Naturally, every community and congregation differs and situations vary. However, please consider the following suggestions when wanting to form and encourage a strong team of devotee volunteers in your area. If you have specific needs and concerns, please write to me and I will be happy to answer your questions.
How to get started:
Step One: Evaluate
Assess the specific needs in your community. Even if you are a small group of Vaishnavas who gather weekly as a “preaching center” to chant and associate with other Vaishnavas, a V-Care team is still needed when a devotee of the Lord is diagnosed with a terminal illness and is facing imminent death. Struggling with end-of-life issues is difficult enough, but having to face these issues alone can seem impossible. No one should have to face the end of one’s life alone, unless he or she desires to do so. If you are a member of a larger ISKCON temple, there is even a more urgent need to form a local Vaishnavas Care Team.
As written above, even when a congregational member is ill with a “flu,” simple, kind gestures such as bringing a plate of prasadam, some fruit, a flower garland from the Deities, or making a phone call asking if anything is needed from the grocery store can make all the difference! Please consider forming a Vaishnavas Care Team in your community, no matter how small or large your congregation, to care for one another in times of sickness– and in health! Vaishnavas Care Teams help to add a mood of love and kindness and trust within a community. We are not only about caring for devotees when there is a physical illness. V-Care volunteers are present when a member of the temple or congregation shows signs of discouragement, or loneliness, or perhaps isolation and may need emotional and spiritual encouragement.
Step Two: Advertise
Make flyers announcing an upcoming meeting to form a local Vaishnavas Care team in your community. The flyer should be bright and cheerful announcing the place, date, and time the meeting will take place. Make announcements at the Sunday feast program for several weeks prior to the meeting. Speak personally to the devotees and have a table with the flyers at the Sunday feast programs with a sign-up sheet for those who wish to attend the upcoming meeting. Stress the need for this team in your community. Reassure them that this service is a “part time” service and that you do not have to be a medical professional to perform this much-needed service for the devotees. One can volunteer for one hour a week or one hour per month or several hours per week, etc., depending on how much time they have available. Many months or longer can go by without any calls for assistance at all.
At your first team meeting,, gather interest by explaining the history and purpose of Vaishnavas C.A.R.E. (found on the Home tab on our website at www.vaishnavascare.org) and the need to form a local Vaishnavas Care team (V-Care Team). Have some copies of The Final Journey–Complete Hospice Care For Departing Vaishnavas (Sangita devi dasi, RN, CHPN) (Torchlight Publishing) on hand to show participants (www.torchlight.com).
-Have a computer available to show participants the Vaishnavas C.A.R.E. website and where they can find further information on this project. (www.vaishnavascare.com).
-Show the professionally produced, short video of the Bhaktivedanta Hospice in Vrindavan, India.
You can view this on our website at the following link: http://vaisnavascare.org/?p=4707 The Bhaktivedanta Hospice, built by HH Giriraj Swami, shows the “larger picture” of the hospice project in the Holy Dhama within our ISKCON movement.
-Briefly explain the following: In some countries, the terminally ill devotee, if desired and available, can receive professional hospice care in his or her home from a nearby hospice agency depending on his or her place of residence. (This, unfortunately, is not yet available worldwide. Research is recommended in your country to see where these services are available.) Where offered, hospice staff make frequent home care visits by a Registered Nurse and Nursing Assistant who are especially trained in end-of-life care. A medical doctor specializing in hospice care will also make visits, as well as a social worker and/or bereavement counselor. Under their guidance, the patient is usually cared for by family members. The hospice team not only guide the patient’s care, but also care for the family who may be experiencing mental, emotional, and spiritual issues due to anticipating the loss of a loved one. The family’s emotions and other needs in dealing with the imminent death of their family member are addressed by the hospice team during their home visits. The professional hospice team is concerned with helping the family as well as the patient to better cope with their situation. This is what is meant by the hospice staff caring for the patient and family members as “one unit.”
-Most hospice care takes place in the patient’s home. However, an alternative to home care would be for the devotee patient to enter an inpatient hospice facility, if available, when the need is there. (For example, if there is no caregiver in the patient’s home, staying in the hospice facility may be a wise alternative, when available. This has occurred with devotees in North America and the hospice facilities were very comfortable situations.) The purpose of the Vaishnavas Care team volunteers would be to add to the emotional, spiritual, and practical care that are vital components for a devotee’s end-of-life care. Most dying patients, no matter what their spiritual beliefs, have individual emotional and spiritual needs while facing their death. However, as Vaishnavas, we have particular spiritual needs that can best be met by other Vaishnavas.
-A Vaishnavas Care volunteer can sign up to render various services such as: *(See note below)
-Cooking prasadam (For example, one meal or dish per week for the patient/family.)
-Delivering the prasadam to the patient/family, if the cook is unable to do so.
-Chanting bhajans for the patient
-Reading to the patient from Srila Prabhupada’s books.
-Chanting japa with the patient.
-Watching transcendental DVD’s with the patient.
-Sitting with the patient and listening! This is perhaps the most important service one can render to the terminally ill person. For one whose death is near, truly hearing what the dying patient wants and needs to verbalize becomes a tremendous gift to the Vaishnava. We also receive many blessings from that devotee in return!
-Offer to render some light housekeeping for the patient. Offer to sweep the floor, wash dishes, wash a load of laundry, straighten up the “sick room” by taking out trash, straighten blankets and sheets, place fresh flowers in a vase to brighten the patient’s room, provide fresh water at the bedside, dust the dresser/bedside table, etc. All of these simple services will make the patient feel cleaner and more refreshed. You would be surprised how good this feels to a bedridden person.
-Bring prasadam flowers that have been offered to Lord Krishna in a vase or bring a flower garland from the Deities at the temple for the patient. (Due to the weight of the garland on the chest, be careful not to place a garland on a devotee who cannot remove it by himself or herself please!)
-Bring maha-prasadam from the temple Deities for the patient. Take a picture on your cell phone or laptop, etc. and allow the patient to “take darshan” of Their Lordships. These services may seem minor but when one is housebound with an illness or even bed bound, this service can brighten one’s day!
-Offer to go grocery shopping or run errands for the family caregiver so he or she can get some well-deserved rest. Caring for a dying loved one or one who has been ill for a long time can be exhausting, especially if you are the only caregiver. If a Vaishnavas Care team member offers to sit with the patient for an hour while the caregiver gets some much-needed rest, it will be greatly appreciated! You would be surprised how long an hour’s rest can be to an exhausted caregiver!
-If there are young children involved, offer to pick them up at school or take them out of the house for an hour or so to get away from the “sick house” for a while. It will be good for the children as well as appreciated by the parents! Sometimes children or teenagers will “open up” to those outside of the family more often than family members in an ongoing stressful situation such as a terminal illness of a parent.
-If possible, offer to take the patient outside, weather permitting. If required, gently push the patient in a wheelchair to get some fresh air and to assist him or her in getting out of the “sickroom.”
-Offer to write emails or personal notes for the terminally-ill Vaishnava or to make calls to those he or she may wish to speak with.
-Knit, crochet, or sew a lap blanket for a devotee who is chronically-ill or facing the end of life. After the patient passes away, this lap blanket becomes a “keepsake memory” for those loved ones left behind. Unfortunately, we now have several elderly devotees within our ISKCON movement in nursing homes. A beautiful, “homemade” blanket made with love would be so appreciated!
This list of services grows with each patient’s particular needs. The idea is for each volunteer to donate at least one hour per week, if not more, to show how much he or she cares for the devotees and helping the family caregivers in whatever way they need. There are many ways to show you care! This list is just to get you started…(There are other ideas and more details in “The Final Journey.”)
During your first meeting if participants wish to sign up to become a Vaishnavas Care Team member in order to form your local team please have a simple form ready for interested participants to fill out to provide their: Name, Contact information (Including Home phone, Cell phone, Home address, Email, Fax#); Services they wish to render such as bhajans, reading, cooking, errands, child care, etc.; List Educational Degrees; Related Experience (Example: Volunteered at a nursing home 10 years ago, etc.)
*I am continuing to give LIVE Vaishnavas CARE seminars, but we also provide a successful Distance Learning Course on our website that many devotees have now completed from around the world. If anyone is in registering for this online course, please go to this link at: http://vaisnavascare.org/?p=2843
*There are six videos to view from our Vaishnavas CARE seminar presented at the ISKCON Toronto temple. Each video should take you approximately one hour or so to watch, but feel free to watch them at your own pace while following along in the workbook you will receive after registering for the course. After you have caught the attention of your volunteers at your first meeting during your first meeting you can encourage them to register as well and then organize “weekly training sessions” where you can all watch these videos together. This seminar should help the devotees to become familiar with basic concepts of end-of-life care and how it relates to our Krsna consciousness philosophy.
*Along with watching these videos there are questions for each volunteers to answer and submit on the website. I will personally respond to their answers. In this way if they have any further comments or questions I can correspond with each participant/student taking the Distance Learning Course. In addition, each student should be reading, The Final Journey — Complete Hospice Care for the Departing Vaishnavas (Torchlight Publishing) along with viewing the video sessions.
*I can also present a Vaishnavas CARE Seminar Via Skype to a small group of interested devotees in your temple or home. The Seminar, called, “The Art of Caring for Departing Vaishnavas” is from 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. with a lunch break. Please Contact Us here to learn more about this option in your area.
We encourage anyone who wishes to pursue further education in this area to do so. Many devotees who have taken this course have gone on to take further education at a community college OR received further training for free at a local hospice agency by signing up for their volunteer program.
We encourage you to plan monthly meetings to regularly gather together and keep up the enthusiasm for this much-needed service. If no one has the time for a monthly meeting then please consider meeting at least every TWO months. Experience has shown that any longer than that and you will start to lose the enthusiasm of your team! The purpose of these regular meetings is to:
1) Maintain a mood of team spirit! If too much time goes by you will start to see volunteers dropping away.
2) Have continued discussions and education about caring for sick and dying Vaishnavas.
3) Organize care and other related activities within the congregation.
Suggestions for Vaishnavas CARE Team Meetings:
-During their monthly meetings, some Vaishnavas Care Teams read together from “The Final Journey” (By: Sangita devi dasi) and/or “Life’s Final Exam” (By: Giriraj Swami) and “Many Moons” (By: Giriraj Swami) is also recommended. Of course, any of Srila Prabhupada’s books, such as “Bhagavad-gita As It Is” is always recommended to read and discuss (especially Chapter 2 when it is regarding a terminally ill situation).
-There are other books on this subject matter such as, “On Death and Dying” by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, which is a classic and highly recommended for your team.
-Take turns finding interesting related videos online and show one during the meeting. There are some good ones (and poor ones!) out there! There are some recommended ones on this Vaishnavas Care website as well. There are some on YouTube.com.
-Each month, a different volunteer can find an interesting article on this subject to share with the team or invite a professional devotee from your community to come in and speak to your Vaishnavas Care Team on a related subject.
–If you have hospices or end-of-life care in your area you may want to invite a hospice doctor or nurse, social worker, counselor, or other hospice professional to your meeting to speak on end-of-life care. If you can invite a Grief Counselor to your meeting for a question and answer session with your team volunteers that may prove to be very beneficial. Many hospice professionals are very gifted in this area and have a wealth of information and experience they can share with us.
–During each meeting discuss who needs care in the community/congregation and what the team members can do to help. Make a list and organize exactly who will do what and when. For example, during the winter “Flu” season many devotees here needed juice, hot soup, and other care. Ask who is sick in your community and who needs an errand run? Make a list and organize your volunteers!
–The Toronto V-Care Team members all got CPR Certified to hopefully save the life of a devotee or visitor in the temple in case of an emergency. In Hillsborough, North Carolina (New Goloka) we formed FOUR Vaishnavas Care teams to cover most of the geographic area of the congregation. Following in the footsteps of the Toronto Vaishnavas Care Team, many of the team members, as well as the teachers and congregational members, became CPR certified AND Emergency First Aid Certified. In addition, we had a fundraiser to purchase an AED machine for the New Goloka Temple Room in case someone had a heart attack while visiting the temple (as occurred at one of our temples in North America). Now this community is prepared in case of such an emergency. The services are endless!
-Another example of what service can be done is that part of our Hillsborough Vaishnavas Care Team took a Bereavement Support Group Training Program from our local hospice Bereavement experts. They trained us how to give better grief support to our own congregation of devotees. The education took one weekend of intensive workshop training. The things we learned has become part of our monthly Vaishnavas CARE meetings. In addition, we started our first New Goloka Grief Support Group after a dear disciple of Srila Prabhupada passed away in our community.
–At meetings you can discuss the difficulties (practical needs and emotional and spiritual issues) for the patient and family within an acute, chronic or terminally-ill situation. How can the Vaishnavas Care volunteers assist?
-These monthly meetings do not have to be lengthy (approximately 1 hour or so), but they help to make your group of volunteers stay inspired and more confident by discussing various ways in which to serve the sick and dying devotees in your congregation. Again, using the Toronto Vaishnavas Care Team as an example, they performed “Role Play” scenarios at a meeting demonstrating various situations that may occur when caring for Vaishnavas. These practice exercises proved to be very helpful to the team members.
Please keep in touch with us here at Vaishnavas C.A.R.E. Please contact me: Sangita devi dasi at www.vaishnavascare.org or Message me at: Vaishnavas CARE — Since 2000. I will be happy to email with you to answer any questions or I can occasionally Skype with you and your team. You can also connect with other Vaishnavas Care teams in ISKCON such as the Toronto Vaishnavas Care Team or the long-running Houston Vaishnavas Care Team or the Potomac (Washington, D.C.) Vaishnavas Care Team, or our four teams in the Hillsborough, North Carolina area, etc. to exchange ideas and to become a support system for one another. There is a team in South China, as well and in Eastern Europe. Exchange emails with members of other teams. This will enliven your volunteers, as well as offer support and new ideas for one another. Even if you are in a country where there is no hospice program yet, there can still be a “Vaishnavas Care Team.”