Easing a Difficult Transition

Mary Roach never envisioned herself being a hospice volunteer, but the death of her father in 2017 set in motion a series of events that forever altered the life of the longtime teacher, coach and administrator.

by Kari Apted

Mary Roach was unfamiliar with hospice care until her family needed it, but when she discovered what it involved, she considered it a Godsend. 

“My dad, Jim Roach—we call him ‘Pop’—passed away in 2017. He was 90 years old, a classic World War II Navy veteran, my rock. He and I were peanut butter and jelly,” Roach said. “He had congestive heart failure and COPD but was strong enough to handle living by himself.” 

Pop’s caregiver called Roach one day to report that her father was not doing well and was refusing to seek treatment. Roach convinced her dad he needed medical care and hurried into Atlanta to be with him at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital. Roach and her three siblings, Cecilia, Dan and Mike, took turns staying with Pop. While his physical therapist was there one Monday, his hospital gown fell open. They were alarmed to see the right side of his chest red and swollen, and he was soon being rushed to the Cardiac Care Unit. It only took a few days in the CCU for doctors to realize nothing could be done to improve Pop’s condition. His care team recommended sending him home with hospice care. 

“I really didn’t know much about hospice,” Roach said. “Pam DeMatteo [a community liaison] from Longleaf [Hospice in Covington] was there, and she told me it was free. I said, ‘What do you mean it’s free? Nothing is free in this world.’ She explained everything, and we signed the paperwork that day.”

As Roach worried about needing help over the weekend, DeMatteo reassured her that Longleaf was available 24 hours a day. 

“I’d never heard of an organization like that,” Roach said. “They gave me a phone number, and I couldn’t believe I could just call at 3 a.m. if I needed somebody to talk to. Our hospice nurse was named Stacy, and she was incredible. I asked her so many questions. She was so kind and loving. Anything we needed or wanted, she was there.”

Pop remained active at home through the weekend. “That Sunday,” Roach said, “he cooked his own food, wrote checks and paid bills. That was Pop, getting everything in order.” By Sunday evening, Pop was in bed. “I kept asking Stacy how long he had left,” Roach said. “It was [impressive] how she knew the timeline.” On Wednesday, Stacy suggested contacting the family to say their goodbyes. “My niece, the oldest grandchild, arrived 25 minutes before he passed away. It was uncanny how Stacy knew exactly how long he had. It was almost down to the minute,” Roach said. “Something I will never forget about his care from Longleaf and St. Joseph’s was how everyone treated him with dignity and respect. No one ever treated him like just another old person.”

Following Pop’s death, Roach stayed in touch with Catherine Vaughn, his social worker at Longleaf. After a few months, Vaughn asked Roach if she ever considered volunteering at Longleaf.

“I believe one of the greatest gifts we can give is to be fully present with another person, fully engaged, not worried about anything else. If I can do that for one person, that is a wonderful thing.”

Longleaf Hospice volunteer Mary Roach

Roach laughed as she replied: “I love hospice, but no, I don’t think that’s for me.” Vaughn persisted, knowing that Roach’s 26 years as a teacher, coach and assistant principal with the Newton County School System made her a strong candidate to work with kids at Camp Kate—a free monthly bereavement program Longleaf hosts to help children work through grief following a loved one’s death. Roach agreed to try. Although she enjoyed the day-long experience, she asked Loy Turner, Longleaf’s community outreach and volunteer coordinator, about opportunities that involved interaction with the patients. 

“I’ve always had this thing for elderly people,” Roach said. “I just love hanging out with them and hearing their stories.” When she found out about Longleaf’s home visitation program, she signed up. “They treated me like an employee, not a volunteer. I was impressed with that,” Roach said. “I went through training, a background check, got a name badge—all of that.”

Roach admits she felt nervous as she drove to her first visit. She had been paired with a senior citizen named Fred. “I don’t pray a lot, but I do ask for help,” Roach said. “When I walked into that house, I asked my Pop to help me out. Then I saw Fred, and my jaw dropped. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He was my dad reincarnated.” Fred was wearing the same kind of plaid shirt and khaki pants, the same type of tennis shoes and the same black leather belt Pop always wore. He even had the matching walker beside him.

“I reached out my hand and said, ‘Hi, my name is Mary.’ He looked me up and down and asked where my name tag was. I had forgotten my badge. I ran out to the car and got it, then asked if we could start over again,” Roach said. “What was supposed to be a 15-minute visit lasted over an hour. I started out sitting across the room but kept moving my chair closer. It was uncanny how much he was like Pop.”

Fred was almost 90 years old. Like Pop, he had served in the Navy during World War II. He had also been a clown for the Shriners, lived in a nudist colony for a while and served as a hospice volunteer, proudly showing Roach his certificate from 1972. He shared Pop’s sarcastic sense of humor.

“What really got me is what happened when I left,” Roach said. “I went to shake his hand, and he moved my arm back and forth like a saw. He said, ‘Know what we say in the mountains? We say, it’s good to saw ya,’ which is exactly what my dad used to do when I left.” 

Roach could not stop crying once she returned to her car. “I was bawling like a baby,” she said. “I called Loy and told her that Fred was my dad reincarnated, that she had hit a grand slam matching us up. I knew I was in 100 percent and coming every time.” Roach and Fred enjoyed 52 days together, talking, playing checkers or just watching Animal Planet during their twice-weekly visits. “We had such a good time,” she said. “His daughters told me that he asked every day if I was coming, and he got so excited on the days I visited. I got so close to him. I couldn’t help it.” Roach felt honored when Fred’s family asked her to speak at his funeral. “I didn’t really plan to be a hospice volunteer,” she said, “but things just aligned.” 

Roach has continued to volunteer with Longleaf after Fred’s death. 

“Everybody wants to be heard, and I just listen,” Roach said. “I believe one of the greatest gifts we can give is to be fully present with another person, fully engaged, not worried about anything else. If I can do that for one person, that is a wonderful thing.” 

For more information on Longleaf Hospice in Covington, visit LongleafHospice.com or call 770-939-9179. Founded in 2009, locally owned Longleaf Hospice has offices in Atlanta and Covington and offers end-of-life care to those with life-limiting illnesses.

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