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Hospice Care volunteer’s age helps form bond with patients

90-year-old John Bergstrom has logged more than 600 volunteer hours since 2012

Photo above – left to right – John Bergstrom, Jim Zentner, Lynn Zentner (holding a photo of Richard and Alma Zentner)

Richard and Alma Zentner spent a lifetime together. Married for 76 years, the couple died this summer, just four days apart.

They did everything together, from a round of golf to visiting family and friends. They moved to Eagan from Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 2006 to be closer to their son, Jim, and daughter-in-law, Lynn. They were getting older, and while still very independent, they needed that help. Being close by made it easier for everyone.

In their 90s, Richard and Alma, were in a new place, away from the community they grew up in and away from their friends, but what they found is that relationships continued to blossom.

Richard’s health takes a turn

About two years ago, Richard suffered a series of falls. His health was deteriorating. The family consulted with the HealthPartners Hospice Care program. Soon after, Richard and Alma met John Bergstrom, a hospice volunteer.

“Bergstrom was a well-known name in our part of (Wisconsin),” said Jim Zentner, Richard and Alma’s son. “I think that helped in establishing that connection and the bond they had.”

Over the next two years, John and Richard had regular conversations. Richard had separation anxiety and these talks gave Alma some time for herself. But she too saw a companion in John.

“We so much appreciate what John has done,” Jim said. “His involvement has gone way beyond any expectations.”

John saw Richard show signs of improvement followed by regression. He was there when Alma’s health deteriorated. All the while, he was providing support not just for Richard and Alma, but for Jim and Lynn as well.

John serves as a volunteer at age 90

“I envisioned what their life together had to have been. These past two years, they were within six feet apart, in their recliners, in their bed and they never left each other’s side,” he said. “I was so fortunate to have the ability to be able to come and connect with these people.”

John’s warmth and kindness has been felt by so many hospice care patients and their families. He has logged 600 hours since 2012 and has visited with 71 different patients.

“John helps people live until they die,” said Barb Szaflarski, HealthPartners Hospice Care Volunteer Coordinator.

Barb said John’s age probably helps him connect better to his patients, but being 90-years-old isn’t the only reason he is so valued. “He finds that a little piece of them. He researches their hobbies and interests. It’s amazing to see how the patients come to life after visiting with John.”

He’s a volunteer, not a patient

John has told this story before. He stopped by to visit with Richard, but on this day, Alma would join them for lunch. The assisted living facility seated them and then brought out bibs just prior to lunch being served. John also got a bib, much to the delight of Alma. When the food arrived, John politely declined. And Alma, leaned over and said to John, “Are you sure, John, I can cut up the food for you?”

John was a volunteer, not a patient, but as he was watching Alma laugh until tears were rolling down her face, he thought about how fortunate he was to have his health and his relationship with Richard and Alma.

“They were very special people,” said John. “They received great care. I would like to thank all of those people, including his family.”

Thankful for great care and kindness

Jim and Lynn also refer to John and everyone from HealthPartners Hospice Care as family.

“I worked with hospice as a retired nurse,” said Lynn. “But being on this side of it, being the family, it’s just an outstanding, wonderful program.”

Become a Hospice Volunteer

Hospice is looking for more volunteers like John. Volunteer opportunities are available close to your home or work, and training is online, and can be completed at your own pace. For more information about the program or to fill out a volunteer application, visit:

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