Chinese end-of-life care volunteers bring comfort to elderly

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A volunteer feeds Laba porridge to an elderly woman at a nursing home in Anping, north China's Hebei Province, on the Laba Festival on Jan. 13, 2019. The Laba Festival, literally the eighth day of the 12th lunar month, is considered a prelude to the Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year. Xinhua/Li Xiaoguo

CHANGSHA (Xinhua) – For Huang Bo and his family, seeing their sick father breathe painfully on the bed in the final hours of his life was not easy.

A group of volunteers at the nursing home happened to see the scene and asked Mr Huang for permission to provide end-of-life care for his father.

“We felt very bad, and didn’t know what to do for him at that time,”Mr Huang said.

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He could only recall his father’s screams, cries, groans and tears because of the constant pain.

“He had to take more painkillers, often several at a time, to ease the pain. We were really upset when my father got worse. It was a complete tragedy,”Mr Huang said.

With permission, the volunteers sat next to the terminally ill man and softly held his hand.

“Don’t be afraid. You just need to follow the light and go. Your family loves you. They will miss you wherever you go,” Gong Wen, a hospice volunteer whispered in his ear.

It worked. In the final moments before his death, Mr Gong and other volunteers provided support and care for Mr Huang’s family and his father, until his last breath.

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Mr Huang’s father passed away peacefully last October.

Mr Gong is the marketing director of an Internet company in central China’s Hunan Province. He is a volunteer of a non-governmental, non-profit organisation, named Love and Companion Center, providing end-of-life care for those in need. Every week, he accepts “special missions” from a 500-member group chat on WeChat, a popular instant messaging tool.

Mr Gong usually spends his spare time with the elderly in local residential communities, nursing homes and charity houses.

By 2018, China had 249 million people aged 60 and above, accounting for 17.9 percent of its total population, becoming a country with the largest and fastest-growing elderly population in the world. Among which nearly 50 million are critically ill, suffering from disability, aphasia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

The country will be an “aged society” by 2026, with more than 14 percent of the total population aged 65 and above.

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“They are haunted by spiritual distress including loneliness, fear of death and helplessness,” said Li Zan, a doctor of law from Peking University and an associate research fellow at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, adding that the importance of spiritual needs for the elderly has often been overlooked.

As one of the founders of Love and Companion, Mr Li said the purpose of setting up the center was to provide professional end-of-life care for the elderly and train hospice professionals.

“There were only a few volunteers at the beginning. Now, we have nearly 3,000 in the city of Changsha. They come from all walks of life and all age groups, playing an important role in providing hospice care,” Mr Li added.

So far, volunteers from the center have provided over 10,000 hospice services for the elderly and their families through difficult times in local nursing homes and communities since it was established in 2014.

Although hospice care has been accepted in some Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the system is still in its early stages in China.

There are approximately 10,000 hospice care volunteers and professionals in 20 cities in China.

“In medicine, the elderly who need end-of-life care are not only terminally ill patients in their final days, but also include those suffering from a terminal illness who want a better quality of life during the time they have left,” said Mr Li.

“Many elderly think they are ‘useless’ or are simply ‘waiting to die,’ but hospice caregivers can help them enhance their self-worth. We hope more people can receive hospice training to help more elderly spend their old age in comfort and happiness,” Mr Li added.

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