While the term “dying with dignity” has been often associated with euthanasia in recent times, the staff and volunteers of Assisi Hospice have been helping people in Singapore facing death to live life with dignity and to the fullest, for over 20 years. But it has not been an easy task. CatholicNews finds out what drives volunteers to spend much of their time with people with life-limiting illness.
(Left) Edith Oliveiro sorts out donated items for the Assisi Hospice Charity Fun Day.
NEARLY EVERY MORNING, Angela Kwek leaves her home in Boon Lay at 5.00am to make her way to Thomson Road. She arrives at Assisi Hospice at about 6.00am where she spends the day serving the patients, and returns home only late at night.
During the day, she helps to fetch patients from their homes to the day care centre, serves lunch and tea, assists patients to use the washroom, and accompanies them for the occasional outing.
Angela was the main caregiver for her mother when the latter was a patient in Assisi Hospice almost 10 years ago. During that time, Angela extended her care to the other patients in the hospice, and has never stopped since.
“This place is like a home to me,” she said. “The patients and staff are like one family. They treat me like their daughter. I will volunteer until I cannot do (sic).”
Angela Kwek, now in her 40s, is just one of the hundred or so dedicated volunteers who contribute their time and energy to help the patients at Assisi Hospice.
According to the Singapore Hospice Council website, Assisi Hospice is only one of two hospices in Singapore that provides the three main services – day care, home care, and in-patient care. The other provider is Bright Vision Hospital. In addition, it is the only hospice here that runs a day centre for children.
“The Sisters believe that if you want to do a good job, do it all the way,” explained Geraldine Lee, the public affairs manager at Assisi Hospice.
The hospice was founded by the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, a number of whom form part of a multi-disciplinary team of doctors, nurses, medical social workers, pastoral care counsellors, therapists, and caring volunteers that addresses the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and social needs of patients and their families.
Volunteers can add to some patients’ quality of life here just by sitting with them and being there for them. This is part of palliative care which does not focus on death, but, rather, compassionate quality of life for the living.
A volunteer expressive art therapist, Daphna Kehila, once shared with Assisi Hospice staff that despite the limited energy or capability of some patients, they are able to partake in activities and express their emotions in the unique circumstances that they are in. Hospice staff observed that this is echoed in many patients who live out their lives meaningfully.
Assisi Hospice cares for even the very poor
Contrary to popular belief, hospice care is not only for those who can afford it. Day care for adults or children at Assisi Hospice costs just $10 a day, inclusive of transport, meals, therapy, nursing, and medical care. This fee can be waived for needy patients, while in-patient care is means tested. Home care, a 24-hour support service to help patients who choose to stay at home, is free.
Assisi Hospice will cost $5 million to run in 2009. About $1.2 million will come from the Ministry of Health and what patients can afford to pay. The rest comes from public donations. One of its annual fundraising events is its Charity Fun Day, which takes place on Saturday May 2 this year. It will be held from 10.00am to 5.00pm at St. Joseph’s Institution International.
Sivapakiam R., a Hindu, was asked by an FMDM sister to help run an ice-kachang stall at the fun fair in 1988. Since then, she has been helping out with ad hoc projects and fundraising.
“I first started out by helping to sell fun fair tickets at the churches. Later on, I helped out in the day care centre, and afterwards at the children’s day centre,” said Ms Sivapakiam, 54. “The people we work with have been a great motivation, and they entrust us to do things our own way.”
Ms Sivapakiam and fellow volunteer Edith Oliveiro are both nurses on permanent night shift at Mount Alvernia Hospital. Ms Oliveiro began volunteering at the hospice in 1987 after attending an Assisi Hospice function and learning about their need for volunteers.
“I like helping people,” said Ms Oliveiro simply. “We bring hope for the patients, so that they know where they can go to be cared for. Most of them look forward to coming to the day care centre.”
An inseparable pair, both Ms Oliveiro and Ms Sivapakiam help sort out donated items for the fun fair, price them for sale, and help to sell fun fair tickets at the parishes.
“When you see an old man come up to you saying, ‘I got no money, I give you two dollars, can?’ Of course, can! It brings me joy to sell tickets at the parishes and see the response that people still give during the recession,” Ms Oliveiro beamed.
“We are quite amazed at the response,” agreed Ms Sivapakiam.
However, volunteering at Assisi Hospice is no walk in the park. The volunteer turnaround is very high.
“It causes us emotional strain when the patients pass away,” said Ms Oliveiro. “But we have to let them go. It is hard to be strong. When we see their suffering, sometimes we also feel that it is best that they go.”
“We have given them the comfort,” said Ms Sivapakiam. “We know they were given the best while they were here, and that we have done something to help them while they were here.”
Both Ms Oliveiro and Ms Sivapakiam acknowledged that their nursing background has helped them to be strong in the face of loss and impending loss.
“We have each other for support, and when we cannot deal with it, we walk off by ourselves to cry,” said Ms Lee. “We have the pastoral team to care for us, and we have the inter-faith memorial service three times a year” to remember with the family members those who have died.
Even so, “it’s hard to start again with a new patient”, said Ms Lee. “This is the hardest part of volunteering in Assisi Hospice, but volunteers have shared that the patients are full of life, and that they are the ones who teach us how to love. Many volunteers have shared that there is much to be gained from volunteering here, that’s why they stay.”
More volunteers needed
Due to the high attrition rate of volunteers, and because much of the funds raised go towards patient care, Assisi Hospice is always on the lookout for more volunteers, especially those with professional skills, such as:
– Those with at least a diploma in counselling, social work, or psychology, who are able to attend team meetings with the medical social workers (MSWs) and help MSWs. As these need to work with the MSWs, they need to be flexible in their time.
– Physiotherapists, massage therapists, for weekdays
– Expressive therapists, art therapists, music therapists, for weekdays
– Teachers, preferably retired, or professionals working with children who can develop children’s programmes such as phonetics, reading, writing, mathematics, etc, for weekdays
– Nurses, retired or otherwise, who know how to feed patients, and tend to them, for weekdays and weekends.
Volunteers need not be Catholic to help out at Assisi Hospice.
- By Daniel Tay
(Right) Sivapakiam R. (extreme right) and other volunteers prepare appeal brochures for mailing.