Joe and Elizabeth Earley of Severna Park have devoted their retirement to a special cause: giving patients with less than six months to live another friend.
As volunteers with the Visiting Friends program at Hospice of the Chesapeake, the couple visits hospice patients and their care-givers to provide support.
"If you can get the patients out of themselves to remember the good times and laugh, then you're a success," said Mr. Earley, 79.
Mrs. Earley, 73, said she chose to volunteer because "I had a heavy need to give of myself and I knew they always would need volunteers for this kind of thing. Everyone asks me why because few people can do it -- come face to face with death."
Over their 10 years with the hospital, the Earleys have watched about 200 people die, most from cancer.
"You've got to be tough-skinned," Mr. Earley said. "This is something I've grown into and something I know is needed. After you say goodbye it's rough, but you just have to pick up another friend."
The Earleys were required to train 10 weeks at Anne Arundel Community College and at the hospice before becoming Visiting Friends.
The training taught them how to deal with death, how to reach someone if a medical problem should occur and how to work with the care-giver.
Betty Asplund, director of the hospice, said the Earleys are good at what they do and are invaluable to the center.
"I'm in awe of everything they do for us. They volunteer so much time to these families," she said. "They share their lives with them in the hours of need, and when the family grieves so do they."
"You go through a grief period, too," confirmed Mrs. Earley, recalling the case of a 25-year-old woman dying from cancer. Mrs. Earley tried to help the woman's 18-month-old daughter and distraught young husband cope.
Mr. Earley recalled a man, told he would die in six months, who refused to die until he and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Eighteen months later, two days after Mr. Earley helped them celebrate their anniversary, the man died.
"They know they're going to die," Mr. Earley said. "Some accept it, some fight it. We're there to be a support through it all."
The Earleys make it a point to go to each patient's funeral. They usually go together; once, they were the only ones at the burial. Mr. Earley was a pall bearer. But they know their limitations. They will not visit dying children, Mrs. Earley said, because the stress of watching a child die would be devastating.
Each time the Earleys are asked why they do it, Mr. Earley responds, "Because the payoff is tremendous -- to make new friendships, to learn new things and to make
someone happy maybe for the last time."
For more information on the Visiting Friends, phone 987-2003. The service is free.