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Coming alongside

John and Doris Terhorst of Verboort give aid to other seniors, in their own homes or when they're dying
by: Nancy Townsley, Doris and John Terhorst, married for 52 years, became hospice volunteers in 1994. A year ago, they signed on with Home Instead Health Care of Hillsboro to provide in-home care to clients who need extra help in their senior years.

John Terhorst gained a dawning understanding about the intricacies of death when he was a teenager growing up.

At the age of 19, Terhorst stood at the foot of his paternal grandfather's bed as he died. Years later, his father's passing occurred in the same house.

'I've had some experience with being left behind,' said the 79-year-old, whose only health issue is weak legs and arms.

Terhorst and his wife, Doris, 80, have been married for 52 years. They became certified hospice volunteers in 1994 after they saw an ad in the newspaper and took classes through Hospice of Washington County.

They continue to visit people who are in life's final transition, sitting with them as they sort out their affairs and wrestle with their emotions.

'We don't talk religion unless they ask,' noted John, a staunch Christian who believes that 'when it's time for someone to go, they'd better have a plan.'

Doris, 79, a registered nurse by profession, is more of a caretaker, tending to errands and laundry, taking time to read to her female clients if that's their desire.

'Sometimes they just need a hug,' she observed.

John, who himself made a living as a dairyman in Cornelius for many years, thinks of himself as a grief counselor with a special affinity for helping men who have recently lost spouses.

'I do follow-up care after their wives pass away,' he said, reclining in the living room of his daughter's home in Verboort.

When they're not doing hospice work, ferrying their grandkids to FFA events in Banks or lending support to the Washington County Fair Boosters, the Terhorsts can be found tending to another passion.

About a year ago, they signed on as caregivers for Home Instead Senior Care, a Hillsboro-based company that caters to the in-home needs of declining elderly patients.

While the Terhorsts don't administer medical care of any kind, they do supply a listening ear and a helping hand to several people on the firm's client list.

'John and Doris are the most active, purpose-driven seniors I know,' said Mike Brunt, owner of Home Instead. 'They have blessed so many lives through their genuine compassion and practical senior care skills.'

For a full year now, Doris has been assigned to care for the agency's oldest client, a 102-year-old woman who years ago was the wife of a dairy farmer.

'I was there this morning,' Doris said last Thursday. 'I gave her a bath, helped her get dressed and gave her breakfast.'

Sometimes, Doris said, the two of them watch television together, tuning in to basketball games because the woman 'is a huge Trail Blazer fan.'

As a male caregiver, Brunt said, 'John is uniquely qualified' to aid male clients 'who miss the camaraderie and familiarity of male companionship.'

Not only is John 'the strongest, healthiest and happiest 79-year-old man I know, but he is also completely reliable,' Brunt noted.

The pair is proud that they have 'never once called in sick' or missed their appointed rounds, John said.

His legs and arms 'are shot,' he added, and Doris is occasionally bothered by arthritis, but they are completely committed to their friends in need.

'It's wonderful that I can give peace to somebody,' John observed.

For her part, Doris said that one of the reasons she cares for the elderly and the dying is because 'we've seen some people who are utterly alone. Nobody comes to see them.'

If she can help it, that isolation will occur in fewer peoples' lives. Between them, the Terhorsts spend two to four mornings a week at their caregiving tasks.

They intend to keep at it 'until we can't anymore,' John said. 'We're retired, so we have lots of time.'

Doris, whose doting husband brings her coffee in bed every morning, nodded in agreement.

'You make a lot of friends,' she said.