Steve Sweeney is what you would call a good listener. A friendly man, he loves to sit around and hear people tell stories about their lives, their families, and their travels. He’s also pretty good at providing comfort and a shoulder to lean on when people need it.

It’s those qualities that make Sweeney a valuable patient care volunteer with Wilton’s Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County. Hospice enables patients with advanced illnesses to live fully until their last moment of life. It helps patients and their families cope with cancer and other terminal conditions in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.

A retired CPA, Sweeney, 63, has lived in Wilton for 29 years with his wife Teresa. He has volunteered with hospice since 2014, lending a willing ear to a number of patients over the years. His current patient is Stanley Epstein of Stamford, a former U.S. Marine. “Stanley is 90 and sharp as a whip,” Sweeney says.

Volunteering for hospice has been a profoundly rewarding experience. “Once you get below the surface, you find so many people have a giant heart,” Sweeney said.

As a patient care volunteer, his job is to visit hospice patients where they live. To Sweeney, the word “visit” is synonymous with “listening.”

“Many people I meet through hospice live in assisted living or other care centers and don’t get a lot of visitors. They are happy to talk to someone who will listen to them. Sometimes they tell me things they wouldn’t tell their families because they don’t want to cause them more pain. They are free to tell me anything — I am there to listen with an open heart,” he said.

One of Sweeney’s former patients was an 86-year-old male veteran who had led a colorful life. When Sweeney arrived one day to visit, the man was lying on a couch with a hoodie on and seemed depressed. He had recently seen a new doctor at a VA hospital who told him he needed to get his life in order because he didn’t have much longer to live.

The man was discouraged because he was feeling good, despite what the new doctor said. So Sweeney suggested the man not see a new doctor that didn’t know him. He then took a photo of the man and showed it to him. “He said, you know what, I’m still pretty handsome! We had a good laugh about that and he went from feeling depressed to feeling pretty dapper,” Sweeney said.

Another former patient, who was nearing the end, had been a child star in a television show.

“He wasn’t very verbal, so I sat by his bed quietly and played the theme song of his TV show over the phone. The man then piped up and started to talk,” Sweeney said.

Another patient had strong concerns that his son, who he had a bad relationship with, was taking his money. Sweeney asked the man if he would like to check his bank account on the computer, and he did. So, Sweeney got permission from hospice to set up an online account so the man could monitor his bank account. He checked it and discovered all his money was there and hadn’t been touched. “He was relieved,” said Sweeney. “He said imagine if I had approached my son on all this. I would have reburned the bridges.”

Sweeney didn’t start out volunteering for hospice, it developed over time. Several years ago, one of his co-workers developed a terminal illness, and Sweeney visited him once a week until he died. “I found this to be a great way to connect with him and hear stories about his life,” Sweeney said.

Several years later, another colleague got a terminal illness and Sweeney did the same thing, visiting him on a regular basis. “I felt I was getting more out of it then I was giving. Since I enjoyed these experiences so much, my wife suggested I volunteer with hospice. They gave me training, and I have been doing it ever since,” he said.

In addition to hospice, Sweeney is a volunteer for the advisory board of St. Peter’s Elementary School in Danbury, where he helps with its budget and financials, and occasionally reads books to the kindergarten class.

With November being National Hospice Month, Wilton’s Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County is actively recruiting patient care volunteers, especially older men like Sweeney who can connect well with others.

The time commitment of a hospice volunteer is flexible. “How much time you choose to devote to it is up to each individual,” said Sweeney. “The training, support and guidance I have received has been invaluable and has fully prepared me for this work. The training and supervision is ongoing and I enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow volunteers.”

For more information, call Laura Rundell at 203-762-8958, ext. 316.

pgay@wiltonbulletin.com