Eleanore Wucherpfenning and hospice volunteer Anita Bauman are working on a puzzle, a scene of brilliant fall foliage, on Bauman’s iPad, chatting as they work. A year ago, Wucherpfenning, 97, was living in Eugene, and still chopping her own kindling.
Then, in a moment, everything changed.
On Dec. 15, she went to the doctor about a pain in her back. It was lung cancer, a large tumor. He gave her two weeks to two months to live. And he recommended she go live with her daughter in Vancouver.
“Take her with you.” Wucherpfenning waves her hands to indicate the conversation between her doctor and her daughter.
“Oh, crap,’’ she said. “My life came to a halt. My life as I knew it.”
In the morning, Wucherpfenning had been living independently. By evening, she was moving to Vancouver.
“But I’m still here,” she says.
In the next hour, the conversation covers a lot of ground. Wucherpfenning’s fondness for, and skill at, Sudoku. Toys (“I like Legos,” says Wucherpfenning.) Electronics and the younger generation’s reliance on them (“If kids can’t do math in their head, the country is gonna be screwed.”) The Bible (“I’ve read the Bible through seven or eight times now. I read whodunits, and I figured if I can read that, I can read the Bible. So I read through it one chapter at a time.”)
Wucherpfenning asks a visitor what she thinks about the recent presidential election.
“That can be kind of a touchy subject,” laughs Bauman.
“I”ve only got so long to ask anyone anything,” says Wucherpfenning with a grin.
Anita Bauman isn’t sure how many individuals and families she has connected with during the 31 years she has volunteered with Hospice Southwest.
“Maybe 35 or 40?” she says. “A lot.”
Bauman visits people in their homes, typically for four hours one day a week, though that can be fluid, says Bauman, depending on the needs of the person and her or his family.
“Some you just see once,’’ Bauman said. “Some are comatose, and you just stay with them while the family member goes out. One lady was frightened. I would just sit with her. Hold her hand. Another lady was a gardener, and she was going bonkers because she couldn’t take care of her garden. So I would go over and tend her garden while she sat at the window and watched.”
Bauman responded to a notice in the paper about hospice training in the fall of 1985.
“I had lived in San Diego, and met Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in my twenties. Wow, what a fabulous thing! She was maybe 4’9”, but a very large person in that tiny body.”
So when the opportunity to train as a hospice volunteer arose, Bauman took it.
“We get the stories,” she says. “The nurses are there to do vitals and give baths. But we get the photo albums and the stories. You build these friendships. It’s just very rewarding. They’re not dying people. They’re people.”
The rest of Bauman’s life is very full. Married 24 years, she and her husband have five daughters between them, three of them in the area. She also has three nieces in town, and 14 grandchildren.
Retired from the Evergreen School District, where she worked in special education, Bauman also volunteers with the Red Cross and with Stepping Stones, a bereavement service for children. And she has just begun volunteering as a Senior Ombudsman.
Bauman says she has had three hard deaths in the past year — a 94-year-old friend, her sister-in-law, and her 29-year-old niece, who killed herself in April.
But when she came back from her niece’s funeral, she went the next day to see Wucherpfenning — not because Wucherpfenning needed her, says Bauman, but because she needed Wucherpfenning.
“The social worker was there that morning, and I said to the social worker, ‘I’m using (Wucherpfenning) today. I’ve just come through 17 days of yuck. And I’m using her.’ Just her presence, her attitude, her energy. It’s a settling, grounding thing.”
Bauman says her work as a hospice volunteer has changed her in profound ways.
“It has given me more compassion, and more appreciation of what I have. It’s made me the person in our family who does all this. If I hadn’t gone (when my niece died), that child would still be in the morgue. And that bedroom still wouldn’t be clean. It has made me much more aware, and able to handle things. And more tolerant — you look at someone and you don’t know what their story is.”
“It’s not about my life and my values and my expectations,’’ Bauman said. “You’re exposed to lots of different people and situations and religious beliefs. It’s wherever they are.”