Arlington Heights hospice volunteer celebrates lives well-lived

  • Mary McArthur, left, was a hospice volunteer caretaker for 100-year-old Madeline Fote, right, who died in January. Fote's daughter, Mary Skittone, said McArthur was a "constant source of strength."

    Mary McArthur, left, was a hospice volunteer caretaker for 100-year-old Madeline Fote, right, who died in January. Fote's daughter, Mary Skittone, said McArthur was a "constant source of strength." Courtesy of Mary McArthur

 
 
Posted11/22/2018 6:00 AM

Since she began volunteering as a hospice caretaker in 2006, Mary McArthur of Arlington Heights has been there for dozens of patients in their final months and days.

Mary McArthur
Mary McArthur

Take the case of the man with Parkinson's and dementia who no longer spoke, but rediscovered his voice while watching a Cubs game and joined McArthur when she started to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Or the retired postal worker with dementia who regained his confidence after playing a round of poker with McArthur.

Hospice volunteer caretaker Mary McArthur made a 100-page scrapbook honoring Madeline Fote on her 100th birthday. This page also celebrates the 100th birthday of Fote's husband, John, and the couple's 77th wedding anniversary in 2017.
Hospice volunteer caretaker Mary McArthur made a 100-page scrapbook honoring Madeline Fote on her 100th birthday. This page also celebrates the 100th birthday of Fote's husband, John, and the couple's 77th wedding anniversary in 2017. - Courtesy of Mary McArthur

And the 100-year-old former seamstress who lit up every time McArthur came to visit, and for the 100-page scrapbook McArthur created recounting personal and historical events -- one page for each year.

"Mary was like a rock. She was that constant source of strength," said Mary Skittone, daughter of centenarian Madeline Fote who died in January. "She knew when she needed to listen. She knew how to listen, when to talk and what to say. It came from the heart."

For her efforts, McArthur was honored this year by the Arlington Heights special events commission with the Volunteer Heart of Gold award, given annually to those who make significant contributions to the community.

McArthur believes in the adage "it takes a village" -- not only to birth and raise a child, but also to escort someone along their end-of-life journey.

"All of us, before our life here ends, want to know that ours was a life well-lived," McArthur said. "As volunteers, we can help with that."

The Arlington Heights mother of three started hospice volunteering when her youngest went off to college. Having lost her own mother when she was 22 -- just before the advent of hospice care in the United States -- McArthur also dealt with the loss of other family and friends, and saw the difference hospice made.

Hospice volunteer caretaker Mary McArthur often engages her patients in conversation and song, but sometimes, they just hold hands. "Nobody should have to be alone," McArthur said. "The bottom line is just being present."
Hospice volunteer caretaker Mary McArthur often engages her patients in conversation and song, but sometimes, they just hold hands. "Nobody should have to be alone," McArthur said. "The bottom line is just being present." - Courtesy of Mary McArthur

Through JourneyCare, she is assigned to visit one patient at a time, usually once a week at their house or nursing facility. Unlike clinical staff tasked with handling a patient's physical needs, McArthur's role is to provide emotional and social support for patients and their families.

Sometimes, McArthur may spend only a month or two with patients before they die. In one case, McArthur spent more than three years visiting a patient until their passing.

No matter when it's someone's time to go, her philosophy is: "Let's make the last stretch as good as it can be."

Skittone recalls how McArthur helped celebrate Madeline Fote's 100th birthday -- not only with the timeline scrapbook, but with cake, party hats and a picture magnet. And McArthur led a rendition of "Sweet Madeline" in the key of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

After a patient dies, McArthur makes a point of writing to the family on the anniversary of the person's passing, and on what would have been their birthday.

"She's one of those special people," Skittone said. "She's at the top."

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