When the dying approach their final hours in this retirement community of veterans, their spouses, and widows, it’s just the beginning for a group of volunteers who have pledged that no one will die alone.
“Once we start, we do it to the end,” said Connie Wyckoff, who founded a group called The 11th Hour at Blue Skies of Texas. The 11 members of The 11th Hour, all fellow residents, commit to eight weeks of training and then serve as on-call volunteers who will sit with and comfort the dying and their family members, no matter the time of day or night – or how long it takes for the end to come.
Blue Skies of Texas, the former Air Force Village, is home to about 1,000 people at two locations on the far West Side of San Antonio. Once open only to veterans, the community expanded to include all age-qualified seniors in 2014, though many residents still have some military affiliation.
The community provides a range of care, from homes and apartments for those who are able to live independently or need some assistance, to skilled nursing care and memory-care facilities.
And, on any given day, the nonprofit senior living community has a team of medical professionals providing hospice care to about 15 residents who are nearing the end of life, said Wendy Carpenter, the chief health care officer at Blue Skies.
About once a month, the phone rings for a member of The 11th Hour.
“They call us and it’s hard to know when last 24 hours are, but we’re getting good at it now,” Wyckoff said. “If the family is there we say, ‘Here we are, and if you need to go [take a break], we’ll sit here and take turns.” She said most family members say no, then an hour later, call and request that break. “We say, ‘We’ll be right over.’ We all have busy lives, we travel, but no one ever says no.”
Other times, there isn’t any family on hand. When Wyckoff moved to Blue Skies in 2015, her husband died three months later. They had no children together. Wyckoff’s father, also a Blue Skies resident, had passed in 2003. “I will die alone,” Wyckoff remembers telling a hospice worker. “I asked how many [residents here] die alone, and she said all of them, unless family comes.”
That’s when Wyckoff, a former Austin resident and hospice volunteer, began recruiting others for The 11th Hour, telling the Blue Skies residents, “Let’s start out by saying we don’t want to die alone. Let’s make sure our friends aren’t alone, either.”
The group is trained in pain management, the stages of death, and how to provide spiritual help, Wyckoff said. They hold the dying person’s hand, caress his or her head, talk, sing, and listen.
“Everybody has a different skill. Some sing, some pray. I have sung, but it’s not a good thing,” she said, laughing. So Wyckoff sits and talks. “Sometimes they wake up at the end and want to talk.”
And sometimes the person is someone she already knows, though often it is not. In recent years, The 11th Hour has supported a veteran of Pearl Harbor, a man heavily involved in the space program, and a woman who was “the world’s best mother,” Wyckoff said.
“But they don’t have all those things once we get to them. They just need loving.”
Shortly after the program started, one of its volunteers became very sick herself and told Wyckoff she wouldn’t have any family at her bedside at the end.
“I told her, ‘We’ll make you our family,’ and we all stood by her as she passed,” she said.
Though Wyckoff’s first time supporting the dying ended with her “in pieces” and weeping, she’s learned it’s not her sorrow and that she’s on hand to help, not cry.
“It makes you not afraid of dying,” she said of her bedside vigils. “I’ve had so many lovely experiences with this that I’m not afraid to die. When I die, I want a party in here. I want wine and hors d’oeuvres. What do you want?”