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UPDATED: June 26, 2014 NO. 22 MAY 29, 2014
Leaving in Peace
As China faces a rapidly aging society, the experiences of the nation's first hospice could offer solutions to some looming problems
By Yuan Yuan

I AM HERE: Huang Lei, a volunteer, chats with a resident at the Songtang Hospice on April 27 (YUAN YUAN)

"We told him that we need help and asked whether he could organize some activities. We even gave him the title of 'director,'" Dong said.

The "job" helped the man feel reinvigorated. "He becomes talkative and his face glows with a smile all the time," Dong said. "Retirement makes some seniors feel they are useless to society. We need to help them regain their confidence."

From young to old

Huang Lei, a student from Tsinghua University, is a volunteer at Songtang.

Huang started her volunteer work with her teammates here in 2011 and has been coming ever since. Every Saturday, the volunteers visit Songtang and talk with the residents for hours.

"The first time my classmates and I went in 2011, we talked a lot about what we thought it would be like on the way there, but after visiting it, almost everybody was silent on the way back," Huang said. "At our age, few of us have experienced death of close relatives, but at the hospice, we are close to death and it really put things into perspective."

In 2013, Huang and her teammates started a program to help Songtang residents make their dreams come true.

The idea started with a female resident surnamed Qi. "During a visit in 2013, Qi told us that she wanted to listen to Pingju Opera, a form of local opera in north China, so we downloaded some arias and played them to her the next time we visited there," Huang said. "It was a very easy thing to do, but it made Qi very happy. So why don't we do the same thing for the other seniors?"

The volunteers then started to ask the senior residents about what they want the most. "Their dreams are mostly out of my expectations," Huang said. "Quite a few couples hoped to have a wedding ceremony and a lady who speaks fluent English even asked to hold an English press conference."

So far, Huang and her teammates have helped 14 seniors to achieve their dreams. They held three wedding ceremonies, an English press conference and a concert.

"When some expressed their desire to sing songs, we thought that as volunteers we could simply play the music and sing along with them but it finally became a concert," Huang said.

The concert was held on October 19, 2013. More than 40 volunteers from different universities gathered in the lobby of Songtang, which was decorated with red balloons and giant posters for the two performers—Sun Junge and Nan Xiaoyi.

Unexpectedly, in the middle of the concert, some other seniors were not content just sitting there as the audience and demanded to be allowed on stage to perform too. Finally, it became something of an impromptu talent show.

Two old ladies also took part. Jin, 93, sang Peking Opera, and Lyu, a former teacher from Beijing Jingshan School who is over 80 years old, read four poems. People applauded and argued over whose performance was better.

"We were excited to see them so happy," Li said. "We frequently hold various activities that almost everybody can participate in so long as they can move. It is a good way to get them to be cheerful and activated."

Of course it is not joyful all the time at the hospice. A few months after the concert, Lyu passed away.

"Hours before she passed away, she held my hand and asked me: Could you please stay with me a little longer?" Dong recalled, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Dong heard a similar story from Jin once when she visited her ward. "She stared at me and said, 'I feel lonely, will you stay with me forever?'"

"Every time I hear something like this, I want to cry," Dong noted. "But we have to face it all the time in the hospice."

"My volunteer work here has made me think about death frequently," Huang said. In 2012, Huang's grandpa passed away and she was able to face it in a relatively peaceful way.

"Death is almost the only thing that you can be sure about in life, it is the final destination for everybody," Huang said. "In order to say farewell to the world calmly, we need to live full of our present life and leave as regretless as possible."

Email us at: yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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