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Hospice workers seek to brighten the holiday season
Hospice client James Pierce, left, plays the harmonica while Jill Crunkleton accompanies him on guitar as part of his music therapy. - photo by BRANDEE A. THOMAS
Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center

Service area: 12 counties, including Banks, Barrow Dawson, Forsyth, Franklin, Gwinnett, Habersham, Hall, Jackson, Lumpkin, Stephens, Union (Suches area) and White counties.

For more information: 770-219-8888 or 800-282-0535; Web site,
James Pierce is quite the charmer.

He entertains his guests with rousing tunes on his harmonica and tales of his 31-year career in the U.S. Air Force.

“Even if I’ve never heard a song before, if someone leads it off, I can play it,” said Pierce, a 90-year-old Gainesville resident, who served in the Air Force during World War II.

“When I was in the Air Force, I used to play in a band part-time, but I couldn’t keep people very long because they kept getting shipped out.”

With Jill Crunkleton accompanying him on the guitar, he’ll gladly play along with whatever disc happens to be in his CD player — his favorite song to play is “Suppertime” by George Younce.

“It brings back memories of mama calling us in to eat something,” said Pierce.

He plays so well that you hardly notice the oxygen tank that he’s hooked up to. The relationship is so strong between Pierce and the ladies gathered around his living room that you’d be shocked to learn that they haven’t known each other for years. Instead, their relationships are fast friendships formed back in May, when Pierce first became a client of Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Hospice provides “end of life care to terminally ill patients in their homes.” The program’s goal is to enable patients to live each day to their fullest potential, according to their needs and wishes.”

“As a matter of routine, we provide support to family members and caregivers through regular visits from social workers, who provide counseling, distraction, life review and encouragement — just whatever is most appropriate from patient to patient,” said Rhonda Rogers, Hospice social services coordinator.

“Volunteers sit with patients for brief periods of time while caregivers run errands, rest, etc. — whatever they need to use the time for.”

Caring for a terminally ill loved one can be stressful on its own. But that stress can double during the holidays when most people are trying to arrange large holiday meals and visits from extended family. The holidays also can be a particularly tough time for families that recently lost a loved one.

“Through our bereavement program, we offer an annual ‘Coping with the Holidays’ seminar, as well as various six week grief support groups,” Rogers said. “These services are open to the community at no cost.”

In order to help their clients enjoy their last days to the fullest, Hospice offers a variety of services including music and touch therapy. They also offer a sort of treasure keeping service, where they record their patients’ memories from throughout their lives.

“(Pierce and I) sit and talk once a week. He tells me stories and sometimes I tape him,” said Burger Vaughan, a Hospice volunteer.

“I’ll type them up and put them together in book form for his family.”

From baking cakes on patient birthdays to providing physical symptom management, Hospice strives to care for the patient and loved ones in a caring way, becoming like a member of the extended family, Rogers says.

“Sometimes, just knowing that you’re cared about, that what you’re going through matters to someone, can be just the little something that encourages our patients and families in remembering that whether a holiday or an ordinary day, they are important and contribute to us as much as we contribute to them,” Rogers said.

“That’s the way we approach the holidays — looking for meaning in the little moments. That’s the way we approach every day.”