Think of a sprawling penthouse, and associations of wealth and power are likely to spring to mind. But glamour is the last thing you’ll find in one such light-filled dwelling overlooking a jumble of spires and red-brick buildings in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood.
Instead, the 15 rooms leading off from a carpeted corridor are home to a constantly changing flow of terminally ill patients who take the elevator up to the fifth floor of the inconspicuous building to die.
“Of course most people would like to die at home as far as possible. But here in our hospice we try to do everything we can to make those final moments worth living for every patient,” said Johannes Schlachter, head of nursing care at the Ricam hospice.
Together with a team of some 90 doctors, palliative care experts, nursing personnel, psychological counselors, cooks, social and voluntary workers, Schlachter tries to ensure that patients, who mostly arrive in terminal stages of cancer and neurological disorders like Altzheimer’s, manage to live a pain-free existence and are cared for compassionately until they pass away.
Around 1,350 patients have died here since the hospice was founded in 1998, said Schlachter. The patients’ average life expectancy is 30 days.
Creating a sense of home
The focus in the hospice is on creating a sense of normality given the circumstances. Family members can visit their loved ones at any time and stay for as long as they want, even overnight in guest rooms.
The centerpiece of the hospice is the kitchen, where a handful of patients gather around the table in their wheelchairs for lunch and company.
There’s also a meditation room where patients and even hospice staff can withdraw to spend time alone or have a good cry when they feel overwhelmed by the situation. And a huge terrace is used for barbecues in summer and a winter garden for celebrating Christmas and birthdays.
The personnel also tries to fulfill patients’ last wishes.
“I remember we had a young mother who was in the terminal stages of abdominal cancer and in excruciating pain. But we still took her during her final days to a soccer game she wanted to watch because her eight-year-old son was playing,” said Schlachter. “We hooked a small portable device under her skin which transmitted the painkillers.”
“We want the patients to live a normal life as far as possible and celebrate events and laugh,” said Schlachter. “And, of course, there are tears too.”