New NI Hospice opens its doors

The new state-of- the-art Northern Ireland Hospice on the Somerton Road in North belfast. Picture Mark Marlow/pacemaker press
The new state-of- the-art Northern Ireland Hospice on the Somerton Road in North belfast. Picture Mark Marlow/pacemaker press
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Until recently I had never been inside a hospice - that is not to say that my family has been untouched by terminal illness, it has.

Until recently I had never been inside a hospice - that is not to say that my family has been untouched by terminal illness, it has.

Even though my father died of a cancer, it was in a hospital.

My only experience of palliative care services had been visiting an aged aunt in a convalescent home when I was a child and my memory of it was not good - neon lighting, windowless corridors, and that pervasive disinfectant smell.

It was a miserable place; the patients were like helpless passengers in a hospital production line and I couldn’t wait to get away.

Therefore, when I was invited to view the new Northern Ireland Adult Hospice on Belfast’s Somerton Road, North Belfast, it was with a certain trepidation. Supposing I should see something I didn’t want to?

Supposing I should make an idiot of myself and cry? None of us like being faced with the intractable subjects of death and dying - mortality is an unsavoury issue.

However my fears about the hospice being a depressing, soul-sapping place were entirely wrong.

After two years of construction, the £13m facility, is a triumph; not a place you would traditionally associate with palliative care of the terminally ill.

The new ultra-modern building, has been built on to the old red brick facility (which will now be home to a cafe and office space).

Designed by local architects, Consarc Design Group, it is audaciously beautiful.

Painted in bright white, with the odd splash of purple (the Hospice’s signature colour), it stands in defiance of Belfast’s greyness and bad news in all its forms.

Without sounding too much like Kevin McCloud, the whole building is sleek and serenely irrepressible.

Inside there is a feeling of light and air - it is a beautiful space in which to cope with the unimaginable.

It has been designed to allow NI Hospice staff to provide world class care to local people and their families at the end of life.

The new state-of-the-art facility features an in patient unit complete with 18 private en suite bedrooms, a rehabilitation suite, a community nursing hub, peaceful gardens, a children and relatives area, a sanctuary and chaplain’s room and space where patients and families can relax together.

A bright and spacious Day Hospice provides therapies, activities and access to an outpatient clinic; an education and research centre is provided in a separate wing.

Breaking new ground, the new-look Somerton Hospice is also the first dementia-friendly hospice in the UK and Ireland, addressing the important challenge of reaching out beyond cancer and providing end of life care for people with non-malignant diseases such as heart disease, severe respiratory and neurological illnesses.

I am given a tour of the facilities by fundraising manger Marcus Cooper the day before services are moved back from Whiteabbey Hospital. He’s justifiably chuffed with the outcome.

On the day I visited, the building was swathed in sunlight; the place was a flurry of activity as workmen and staff raced to make the final touches.

The attention to detail is meticulous, thanks in no small part to the project leader Paul McKeown.

‘‘Paul was the head of the inpatient unit at Hospice,’’ explains Marcus.

‘‘We seconded him out to work very closely on this project.

‘‘A trained nurse he brought his experience of patient care and the nurses’ perspective into every aspect of the new hospice. He linked in a lot with other hospices in England, going over to see what they had done, and also with Sterling university as part of the dementia design.’’

The bedrooms are large and non-clinical, with the type of soft furnishings you might expect to find in a family home.

Marcus says: ‘‘The hospice is very much about a home from home atmosphere, you’ll see that with the soft furnishings, the curtains, the chairs - they have all been chosen in conjunction with patients.

‘‘We talked to patients and their families, we had samples, we asked them what did they like, what did they think would be calming, and create a relaxing atmosphere and make it feel as homely as possible.

Even though it is a clinical environment, we tried to keep it softer - even with the beds, we got our suppliers to bring beds down to our existing hospice facility and asked the patients to try them out and to score them and rate them and that’s how we chose them.

‘‘Even though those patients are no longer with us, there is something of their legacy within the new build.’’

The rooms, which are called suites and named after local places, such as Rathlin Island and the River Bann, are spacious and light.

‘‘We tried to incorporate as much opportunity for families to spend time with loved ones, so there’s tables, chairs, Wi-Fi. The TVs are internet enabled, the idea around that is that if a loved one still has to be at work that they could come in, and with mobile technology, continue to work from the room.

‘‘If there’s young children, again they can come in after school, and do their homework.’’

They also have a fridge, wardrobe space and individualised medicine cabinets, and wooden headboards with integrated services - oxygen, medical air, suction.

‘‘We never would have had this before in hospice, we would have had a lot of oxygen cylinders and canisters sitting around the wards so they could be quite cluttered.’’

They also have a pull-down bed so family members can stay the night.

‘‘In the old hospice, people would just have had to sit and sleep in chairs beside the bed - so they didn’t have a huge amount of comfort.’’

The nurse call system is the first of its type in the UK - and it works off mobile technology.

Marcus explains: ‘‘The nurses have a little handset, like a Nokia mobile phone.

‘‘ If the patient needs help they hit the nurse call system, it then goes directly to an individual nurse who can choose whether to accept that or if they are busy they can reject it - the call then links on to the next nurse, and so on, and they can talk directly to the patient from their handset.

‘‘Before we would have a standard nurse call system.

‘‘This is very bespoke, very individualised and operates throughout the building.’’

The building has been designed to be as ‘‘future-proof’’ as possible.

‘‘We recognise that we will be caring for a much greater range of diseases in the future - so obesity will increase as will dementia,’’ says Marcus.

Dementia-friendly design elements include non reflective paint, lots of low-level lighting and dementia clocks, which as well as telling the normal time, will give the day and season.

‘‘It’s all about very straightforward information to let people orientate themselves.

‘‘The floor surface in the bedroom is different to the texture in the ensuite bathroom, so if somebody wakes up in the middle of the night and wanders around and becomes confused, they would know that they are in a different part of the room.’’

The 12 rooms on one side of the building all have access to their own private patio space with patio furniture donated by Ikea, with trellises and plants.

‘‘Everything can be moved outside - we know that’s something patients greatly value as do family members,’’ says Marcus.

‘‘The beds are on wheels, as are the riser/recliner chairs, so the patients can go outside very easily.

‘‘I remember a story about a lady - it was the middle of the winter, she was very ill and in the last days of life.

‘‘It had started to snow and she wanted to feel the snow on her face for one last time, so the nurses were able to get her bed outside - it wasn’t the easiest to get people outside in the old hospice, but they were able to do it.

‘‘It was something that lady deeply appreciated, as did her family.’’

The patios also have overhangs so even if it’s raining and they want to leave the door open, or just sit out, that can be easily done as well.

Nature and art feature heavily in the new hospice.

There are beautiful sculptures, paintings and stained glass.

There’s a family garden so relatives can spend time outside.

‘‘There’s Arts Council-funded pieces in this garden and sonic art with sensors so when you walk past them it will trigger a sensor and then a soundscape will play - it could be birds singing, leaves rustling - to create that sound of nature as much as possible.’’

Marcus adds:‘‘Hospice has always been about adding life to days rather than just merely days to life - trying to create memories for families, for patients, trying to make the experience as easy as it can be,’’ says Marcus.

Having spent some time at this new top-class facility it is also clear that it is not frivolous to care about design or to acknowledge architecture’s importance as an ingredient in the good care of people.