By William Smith
Arleen Starman is 97 years old and has experienced the breadth of humanity during her time at the Southeast Iowa Regional Hospice House.
Her kindness — and more importantly, her empathy — is a comforting fit for end-of-life care. Starman does a little bit of everything at the hospice house — all on a volunteer basis. She plans her days around it and still drives to work herself.
“I am often asked what is my secret to long life, and I tell them that exercise and a daily 2-mile bike ride are important to me, but most of all I am very blessed with good health and strong faith in our loving Heavenly Father,” Starman said.
Starman recently earned her pin for 15 years of service, representing 3,247 hours of volunteer work. She’s worked just about every job imaginable at the hospice house in that time and has started two programs — Turkey Tinsel in Tears and Table For One. The turkey tinsel program helps grieving families through the holidays, while Table for One is designed for widows and widowers.
Sometimes, the work is much more personal than taking phone calls. Starman often sits with patients in their final moments of life if no one else is there. It’s the hospice way.
“We try to make sure that no one dies alone,” Starman said.
Like many volunteers, Starman became interested in hospice after her late husband entered hospice care. Back then, she had never heard of hospice. Neither had most people.
“They (hospice volunteers) were with him and my daughter the night he passed away,” Starman said.
Starman saw an ad in the paper asking for hospice volunteers sometime after that and found herself intrigued. Her daughter was initially worried about the emotional toll the job might have.
Starman found plenty of emotion in the hospice house, but it only made her stronger. She could relate to the patients and their families because she had been through the same thing. She was healing as she helped them heal.
“I loved it. I have been able to make connections with a lot of people,” she said. “So that’s my passion.”
A native of Johnson County, Iowa, Starman was born on a farm during the Great Depression. Her father lost the farm in the depression and settled for renting a farm in Marion. Starman graduated from high school there in 1943.
“I’m coming up on my 80-year class reunion,” she said with a laugh.
Starman eventually ended up in Burlington and started working at the Midwest Biscuit Company, where she met her future husband. They married in 1945, and Starman worked as a secretary for several businesses.
But her secretarial claim to fame came at the former James Madison Middle School, where she was secretary for 27 years. She was also the first secretary for the school, which was brand new at the time.
“That was my, my love. I love working with the kids,” Starman said.
Starman is an accomplished accordion player as well — a dying art she tried to pass on by teaching others. She had three kids in the meantime, who eventually had eight grandchildren, and then seven great-grandchildren.
Those children have been out of the house for decades, but Starman doesn’t depend on her kin to entertain her. She has her own life and doesn’t intend on wasting it.
“I’m not one to sit at home in a rocking chair,” Starman said.
Starman is thinking of retiring from hospice in the near future but hasn’t come up with an end date. The other volunteers and employees can’t imagine hospice without her. It seems as if she has always been there.
Miranda Clubb, the volunteer specialist for Southeast Iowa Regional Hospice, dreads the day Starman leaves. She thinks of her as her own grandma. She even asked Starman’s permission to call her grandma.
“She’s just so sweet and caring and such a good volunteer,” Clubb said. “She’s definitely one-of-a-kind. And I keep trying to tell her she can’t leave us.”
Hospice is a big volunteer family with a job for everyone. But not everyone can do what Starman does. She recalled sitting with a woman in the hospice hours before the lady passed away.
“I sat by her bed, and I was singing hymns and doing what I could,” Starman said.
Physical touch is important, and Starman took the woman’s hand and repeatedly squeezed it, just to let her know someone was with her. She got no reaction from the woman. Starman wasn’t sure if the lady even knew she was there.
But then Starman asked the woman if she would like her to recite the Lord’s prayer. There was still no reaction. So she started reciting.
“All of a sudden, her hands started moving, and they were coming up to pray. She almost had her fingers together before I got to the end of the prayer,” Starman said, tears welling in her eyes at the recollection.
The woman died two hours later.
“It was very emotional,” Starman said.
Starman will be turning 98 in December and will have to reapply for her driver’s license. She’s worried she won’t pass the test, despite the sharpness of her wit and her faculties.
She has endless ride offers from the hospice volunteers and anyone else who knows her, but living independently and helping others is the only life Starman knows. She’s not about to give it up now.
“I drive to my church right across the street, and I got Hy-Vee right there, and then hospice and the doctor’s offices out here. That’s about the extent of my driving. But it’s important. I take care of myself,” she said.