Months ago now, two PALS volunteers, one of whom happened to be a social worker, interviewed me to see if I too would make a suitable PALSie. Ms. Therapist went off script near the end and asked me how I’d contain my therapist self in this role of PALS volunteer. What a great question. I was stumped.
As a helper by profession, I find it hard to ignore that supportive instinct in other settings. The job of a PALS volunteer is not to be a therapist to the people we visit, many of whom I’ll meet only once. I must deliberately set internal boundaries to stop myself from becoming overly or inappropriately involved with these visitees.
Setting these boundaries is not easy, I’ll admit. During the interview, I acknowledged I’m not great at shutting off this supportive side of myself. I told the interviewers that I often avoid the potential altogether by not informing acquaintances that I’m a psychologist. Sometimes Knowledge of my profession alone may encourage people to seek my support inappropriately. I may have previously mentioned a fellow gym goer once seeking relationship advice while I was naked in the change room. Lesson learned? Once burned, twice clothed.
Because the role of the PALS volunteer is therapeutic by nature, I must be aware of maintaining my emotional boundaries at all times. This becomes harder as I get to know some of the residents in our assigned retirement home. In fact, I wavered last week during our regularly scheduled visit.
Have I mentioned that one wing of the residence Jelly and I visit is a hospice? Yes, people go there to die. As I was entering the building, I happened upon a woman I had met previously. She was leaving after visiting her mom, a hospice resident. This woman was obviously feeling emotional, but she stopped to greet Jelly and told me how much her mom had enjoyed the last PALS visit. She asked me to check in on her mom again that day.
According to the bounds of my role, I should have wished the daughter well at this point, but instead I said, “This [watching your mom die] must be hard.” I learned she’d been visiting daily and commended her for being such a good support to her ailing mom.
The daughter became teary, but I felt I had to acknowledge what she was going through. It felt better to risk making her cry than to ignore her impending loss. Boundary crossed. I didn’t hand her my business card (although I had one in my wallet) or mention that I’m a psychologist; I wished her well and off she went.
Sadly, I don’t know if I’ll see that woman or her mom again. The thing about a hospice is that people aren’t often there long. I did take Jelly to visit the mom, who looked all the more frail since we were last there. She was exhausted and politely declined our company. I respected her boundary and moved on.
All Jelly and I can do is show up and hope to provide comfort. Sometimes we are successful. If that involves crossing the occasional boundary, so be it.