SINGAPORE: With a friendly smile, 20-year-old Duan Mengnan settles herself at the bedside of the elderly patient at the hospice.
“Uncle, do you want to go down to the garden and look at fish?” she asks. He nods agreeably. Moving quickly and efficiently, she helps a nurse transfer him to a wheelchair, before confidently wheeling him down to the hospice garden and stopping him by the side of the pond to give him a good view of the fish.
Her duties go even further: She has helped with feeding patients, sponging them and even changing their diapers.
But Ms Duan is not a nurse – she’s a volunteer at Assisi Hospice, which puts its volunteers through a training programme to equip them with nursing skills like feeding, sponging or diaper changing.
Assisi says it is the only one in the hospice sector which requests that its volunteers help in nursing care. And the benefits are clear. Every volunteer who can lend a hand with these basic duties frees up a nurse to carry out more advanced tasks like drawing blood or giving injections.
“Volunteers make the work of the nurses so much easier,” said Juliet Ng, Assisi’s head of communications and community engagement. “There’s already a shortage of nurses in Singapore, so having the extra pair of hands means they can focus on more complex tasks.
“It also helps the nurses to get some rest,” she added. “There was this one evening where we didn’t have a volunteer, and the nurses didn’t have the time to eat their dinner.”
IMPORTANT SKILLS FOR VOLUNTEERS TO LEARN: TAN CHUAN-JIN
The volunteer programme at Assisi Hospice was in the spotlight on Friday (Jan 26), when they hosted a special volunteer: Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin.
Wearing a yellow tee with the words “Team Assisi” emblazoned across the back, Mr Tan wasted no time in getting down to business, as he helped a nurse transfer a patient to a wheelchair, before wheeling him around the ward.
When asked later if he found his experience difficult or challenging, Mr Tan shook his head.
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve done this before in different capacities, but it’s useful to learn, because when our turn comes to help our families and loved ones, we are also equipped to do that.
“I think volunteers are sometimes a bit wary - is this the right way to do it ... and that could hold them back,” he added. “But unless you take that step forward, you never know. And there are ways to learn and practice.”
And indeed, from Assisi’s experience, many of the volunteers have already had experience taking care of their aged parents.
“Sometimes, we also have nurses who may be retired, or do volunteer work on the side, which is fantastic for us because they are already fully skilled,” said Ms Ng.
“A lot of volunteers come to us wanting to do something meaningful,” she added. “And this – helping nurses with basic nursing skills – is definitely meaningful.”
The hospice has about 100 active volunteers who come in regularly. But Ms Ng noted that because they have increased their number of beds and are hoping to open up more beds to serve more patients, more helping hands will definitely be welcome.
“We want all the volunteers who come through to feel that they have done something for someone in a meaningful manner, and know they are making a difference,” she said.
But training them, she added, is of paramount importance to the hospice, so the volunteers know what to expect. Every volunteer at Assisi is required to undergo a full-day training programme covering practical skills like how to handle wheelchairs, oral feeding and hygiene, and other areas like spotting the signs of impending death, and being sensitive to their words when speaking to patients.
When in the wards, volunteers work together with nurses to complete tasks like sponging, changing of diapers, and moving patients between beds and wheelchairs.
“Until you equip the volunteers and they know what to expect, they won’t be able to help the patients,” said Ms Ng. “And we also want them to know that if it does get too much for them, they can always opt out.”
WHY DO THE DIRTY WORK?
Their role at Assisi involves tasks that that some may perceive as dirty work. But Ms Duan, who hopes to pursue a career in the healthcare sector, is unfazed.
“Before starting as a volunteer, I’d never helped clean someone up before,” she said. “But after awhile, I got used to it.”
“Besides, in the healthcare sector, it’s just like that. It’s the human body.”
The same goes for another volunteer, 44-year-old Nicholas Mowe.
“I think it helps that I’ve had kids, and I’ve changed all their diapers,” he said. “So I’ve gone through poop before, and it makes no difference whether it’s the poop of a small fellow or a big fellow.
“Obviously there’s the sanitation aspect to all that, but that’s not what you think about when you serve in this capacity,” he added.
“My only focus is, I want the patients to be as comfortable as they can, and as comfortable as I can possibly make them. And if that’s making sure they have a clean diaper to wear, their shirt is clean and dry and they’re feeling fresh, then that’s what I’ll do.”
But ultimately, both volunteers stressed there is so much more to their role than simply cleaning up after patients. A large part of their time, they said, goes to befriending the patients, spending time with them and bringing them cheer as they reach the end of their lives.
Mr Mowe, who took a break from his job in finance to volunteer and spend more time with his family, said his most heartwarming moments are when patients chat with him, and tell him they’ve missed him while he’s gone.
“The fact that they look forward to your visits is, to me, a testimony of the value that a volunteer has,” he said. “The nurses here have their schedule and administrative tasks, so there’s not enough people to give the ideal care in an end-of-life facility. So that’s where the volunteers come in to fill these gaps.
“It’s the friendship you want to build to maintain, because their family members may not be able to be there, and you don’t want them to just be staring at the TV or out of the window.”
Ms Duan, who is slated to leave Singapore in February to pursue a degree in physiotherapy in Australia, said she is excited to become trained as a healthcare professional. But she added that leaving the patients and staff she works with at Assisi can be upsetting.
“They’re my friends, and now that I know I won’t be seeing them regularly, I’m very sad,” she said. “That’s why I know that I’ll definitely be coming back during my holidays.”
“I know people may be scared of volunteering in the hospice because they know it’s end of life care, and it may be a sad place,” she added. “But it’s not like that. It’s a happy place, especially in the day care, where we get people doing things like massage and sing-alongs.”
“When I see them all singing together, it’s very heartwarming, and it makes me realise that this is what life is all about.”