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

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


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

College students put on a performance and chat with elderly patients in a hospice in Beijing on December 2, 2018. Photo: VCG

For Huang Bo and his family, seeing their sick father struggling painfully to breathe on his 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 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,” Huang said.

Huang could only recall his father’s screams 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,” Huang said.

With their 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.

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

Huang’s father passed away peacefully last October.

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 organization, named Love and Companion Center, which provides 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.

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 the country with the largest and fastest-growing elderly population in the world. Nearly 50 million of them 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.

“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 is often overlooked.

As one of the founders of Love and Companion, 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, and play an important role in providing hospice care,” Li added.

So far, volunteers from the center have provided over 10,000 hospice services for the elderly and their families in local nursing homes and communities since its establishment 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 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 people spend their old age in comfort and happiness,” Li added.