“The meaning of life is to give life meaning”: volunteering at Assisi Hospice

By Margaretha Sherlyana Go, SMU School of Accountancy

When I started volunteering at Assisi Hospice Daycare Centre in 2013, I wasn’t exactly motivated by a sense of kindness and genuine sincerity. I didn’t even know what ‘hospice’ meant. I was simply too free during my school vacation, and wanted to find interesting ways to keep myself occupied. However, right now I’m glad that I chose to volunteer with the organisation. I believe that it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made in my whole life.

What does a hospice volunteer do?

Assisi Hospice is a non-profit organisation that provides palliative care to people with life limiting illnesses through In-patient, Home and Day Care services. To put it simply, these are patients who are expected to pass away as a result of their illnesses, and the purpose of palliative care is to improve the quality of life for the patients as well as for their families.

As part of a team of dedicated volunteers, Margaretha (seated, wearing black) provides not just physical help for hospice patients, but also emotional support for them during their final days.

Most people often have a preconceived negative notion that hospices have a depressing atmosphere because they are places where many people pass away. My personal experience is that this is not the case at Assisi Hospice: it has a warm environment filled with friendly and dedicated staff members and volunteers, who ensure that the patients receive the best hospice care.

As a volunteer at the Daycare Centre, I provide general help such as: assisting patients, preparing their food, feeding patients, providing them with van escort and generally befriending them. In writing, these seem to be the ordinary roles of a volunteer, but in reality these roles have been very meaningful and enriching.

What is it like to work with patients who may be in the final days of their lives?

Ever since I joined as a volunteer, I’ve made a lot of new friends among the patients at the hospice. They come from diverse backgrounds: some of them come from English speaking families, while others do not; some are from big families while others live alone. And of course, all of them suffer from different medical conditions.

Getting to know these patients has given me a more enlightened perspective on the role of a volunteer: we do not just provide a pair of hands and legs to carry out general chores, but we also have the capacity to provide emotional support and encouragement to each patient as a friend.

It is not always easy to deal with people who are suffering from life limiting illnesses due to the intense emotions that are involved. Patients who know they will soon pass away can be low in spirits, and since it’s impossible for me to completely understand how they feel, I try very hard to be sensitive to their feelings in my interactions with them. While it is difficult for me to find the words to comfort them when they share their regrets or unhappiness with me, I consider it a privilege to be able to provide them with a listening ear.

In my experience as a volunteer, every day is different. There will be happy days when it is just so beautiful to see the smiles of the patients, to see how well they are eating and how independently they are moving around. There will also be worrying days when I start to see their physiques deteriorating, when they start to have a hard time moving around or eating, and eventually end up bed-ridden. Eventually, sad days will be inevitable as I bid final goodbye to them. Observing these different stages is a bittersweet experience and can be emotionally draining. However, it is worthwhile and fulfilling to realise that I have done my best as a volunteer and as a friend before the final goodbye.

The staff and volunteers at Assisi Hospice carry out a variety of activities to engage and entertain the patients.

What are the benefits of being a volunteer?

The volunteering experience at Assisi Hospice may seem challenging, but I believe that the challenges have provided me with a lot of room for self-improvement and development. Throughout my two years of volunteering here, I’ve learnt the importance of being understanding, and to see someone from their perspective instead of my own. The patients, just like everyone else, have been through many challenges and setbacks in their lives. In fact, due to the nature of their illnesses, they have been through even tougher times than many of us. This has made me more aware of the need to take a step back and try to empathise with the other party before we pass any judgment.

Most importantly I’ve realised that, no matter how small or lacking we may sometimes feel, each of us can still make a difference in someone else’s life. I’m grateful to have had the chance to find out that I could be an important part of someone else’s final days. Although it is always sad to bid a final goodbye to a patient, I’m glad to have made a difference to the lives of those I met, by trying my best to make their remaining time as happy and meaningful as possible.

It is often said that “the meaning of life is to give life meaning”. Although I originally took up this volunteering opportunity out of boredom, it has given my life more meaning and shaped me into a better individual. As a volunteer of the past two years (with many more to come), I would strongly encourage others to contribute their time to volunteer at Assisi Hospice, which has been a very meaningful and fulfilling experience for me. No prior experience is required, as this organisation has many volunteering opportunities available that would suit your skills and interests.

Do contact Mrs Yu Chin Hui (Volunteer Coordinator) at yu_ch@assisihospice.org.sg to let her know you’re interested to volunteer. I believe that it will be an enriching experience for all who take it on.

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