candlelight companions

In the midst of sitting with a loved one during their final days on Earth, it’s reassuring to know we have support. We lean on friends and family for strength. We might pray or meditate. But, there are times we need someone who is trained to fill in for us. Such a wonderful thing exists. It’s called Candlelight Companions. It is one of the numerous, innovative programs offered by Family Hospice & Palliative Care, headquartered on Moffett Street in Mt. Lebanon.

Let’s do a little role-playing. Imagine the doctor tells you that your mother, who has been a resident of Asbury Heights Retirement Community for several years and is now in skilled nursing, has just weeks to live. You have called Family Hospice to make sure your mother’s final days are comfortable and peaceful. You want her pain managed. You and your siblings want your mother treated with the dignity she deserves. But you are the only one who can sit at her bedside. It will be 10 days until your siblings can make it to Pittsburgh.

You are delighted with the “connection” the hospice nurses have already made with Mom. They play Sinatra because that’s your mother’s favorite music. But they can’t stay with her round the clock. You’ve stayed with her every night, stroking her arm, brushing the thin wisps of white hair. But you don’t get a restful sleep while you are there. Lately, the hospice nurses are worried about you. The adrenaline rush is over, and exhaustion has filled every cell of your being.

The Family Hospice nurses tell you about the Candlelight Companions, a program that provides trained volunteers to sit with and comfort the dying. It sounds like an answered prayer; your mother is petrified of dying alone.

“That’s the main fear most people have,” says Greg Jena, manager of marketing and public relations for Family Hospice & Palliative Care. “Arranging for a trusted companion to ‘sit vigil’ at night in a long-term care facility grew out of a real need we saw in our partner long-term care facilities. When we learned there were folks dying alone, Nick Petti, Fruithurst Drive, our manager of volunteer services, and I decided we needed to act.”

Family Hospice developed a program to train volunteers to comfort the dying by being a physical and emotional presence. Petti meets with each trainee, ferreting out his/her unique strengths and hidden talents (which they always seem to underestimate, according to Petti). “I ask if they’ve had any experience staying with a dying family member or friend. Sometimes their interest is a direct result of witnessing how Hospice comforted someone they loved,” Petti says.

Training to be a Candlelight Companion includes sessions led by hospice nurses, social workers, and spiritual care counselors. Topics range from end-of-life stages, emotional and spiritual issues, listening skills and nonverbal signs that someone is in distress. Respecting the patient’s wishes is paramount. Since 2004, more than 50 volunteers have been trained to be Candlelight Companions in the nine counties served by Family Hospice and Palliative Care. Seven reside in Mt. Lebanon.

In It For The Long Haul

Jack Wall, Woodhaven Drive, was one of the first Candlelight Companions. After his morning run, Wall drives to Family Hospice. Since Wall is an early riser, Hospice staff taught him the nuances of feeding a person who is in their end stage of life. “I greet the patients first thing and feed them their breakfast,” Wall says. At age 80, Wall seems a study in contrast with many of the elderly people he serves. In 1997 (he estimates), he began cycling long distances. This fall, he rode from the mountains to the coast of North Carolina. That’s 450 miles. Though he is described as a man who never sits, that all changes when Wall spends time with a patient.“It’s a privilege to deal with people in the last hours of life,” he says.

A Life-long Hospice Advocate

Anita Erson, Bower Hill Road, has devoted most of her life to the hospice field. “Hospice work gets in your blood,” she says.  To stay involved, Erson became a Candlelight Companion. Erson’s husband was a Lutheran minister and hospital chaplain. He died in 2004. Erson encourages families to bring their teenage children  to hospice so they can see first-hand that a visit can be a meaningful gift. “I am so grateful I can do it,” says Erson, who is 83.“I’m grateful for my strength and health.”

A Faith-building Experience

Being a comfort to both her mother and another close friend during their extended terminal illnesses prepared Heidi Potter, Elatan Drive, for her role as a Candlelight Companion. “That time with them was a privilege. When a soul is prepared to die, it’s like walking on holy ground,” says Potter. She loves her volunteer work with Family Hospice, because she says the program embodies respect for each individual. A mother of six, Potter appreciates the quiet moments with each patient. Her husband, Scott, understands that Heidi is doing something valuable and supports her 100 percent.

It’s a Calling

Before signing up to be a Candlelight Companion, Carol Plake, Lakemont Drive, had never been present when someone died. At first, she wondered how it would feel, if she’d feel awkward. Plake didn’t think the work sounded overwhelming. Likewise, she didn’t mind the odd hours (usually in the middle of the night). Though she began volunteering in 2007, it was several years until Plake was actually present when a patient passed away. “I try to appeal to my patient’s senses by stroking their hair or face, holding their hand, even softly singing. Often these folks have no one left. They’ve outlived their family and friends…  I think our presence brings them peace,” Plake says.

Program Basics

The Candlelight Companion program is currently available to residents of the Baptist Home, Asbury Heights, Providence Point and Marian Manor. Volunteers involved in this program, which serves about 50 people a year, brings immeasurable rewards. “Our volunteers in vigil tell us they get way more than they give,” says Petti. “We didn’t anticipate that. ”

To learn more about Candlelight Companions at Family Hospice and Palliative Care, please contact Nick Petti, manager of volunteer services, at 412-572-8806 or