Feeling ‘at home’ for the last time

Continuing our series about palliative care in the context of being ‘homeless’ which may include sleeping on the streets, living in a hostel or ‘sofa surfing’. We look at the implications of providing palliative care and bereavement care for people who are homeless and how the hospice and palliative care community can offer appropriate support.

Today, Anna Felber, Public Relations, introduces VinziDorf-Hospice, the first hospice for homeless people in Austria.

Felber Anna

Homeless people do not have an official lobby to represent them, and their deaths are mostly hidden. Death is a taboo topic; they hide the severity of their illnesses and avoid hospital visits, as they are often met with rejection and a lack of understanding. As they are dying, they are taken by ambulance to a hospital, an unfamiliar environment where their friends and relatives are not there to support them through the process of death.

But here, in the VinziDorf-Hospice in Graz, Austria, terminally ill people can have a dignified death among people they trust. This first inpatient hospice for homeless people in Austria is run by the Sisters of St Elisabeth in Graz – in short ‘Elisabethinen’ – and opened in April 2017. The VinziDorf-Hospice guarantees comfort in the final phase of life. Residents are allowed to die in a familiar place, where they can receive visitors, which is more like a home than a hospital ward.

“I had never thought that somebody cares whether I live or I die.”

This is what one resident said after he was admitted to the VinziDorf-Hospice. The target group encompasses any homeless adults, both men and women that have a terminal illness and require inpatient hospice care. They have to approve of being admitted there, nobody is forced to move into the VinziDorf-Hospice. In individual cases the team also provides outpatient care, e.g. for residents at VinziDorf (which will be mentioned later) that need palliative care. However, due to limited resources, the staff does not reach out to people sleeping rough. Those people might be transported to a hospital if they need emergency medical aid and can be transferred to VinziDorf-Hospice from there.

Since the VinziDorf-Hospice is the first of its kind in all of Central Europe, there have been inquiries not only from Styria (south eastern part of Austria), but from other parts of Austria and even from other countries. One patient from Vienna who had no emotional ties to this city moved into the hospice and found new friends there.

Christmas festivities at VinziDorf-Hospice

Residents at the VinziDorf-Hospice are seen as people with personal stories that are not to be judged. Homeless people have different habits from other groups, and a strong will for independence and autonomy. The interdisciplinary hospice team treats these needs with understanding. Feedback from residents has confirmed that they feel this acceptance:


“Here at the hospice, I have found a feeling of safety.”

The focus is equally on medical and nursing care as well as sincere, personal support. Everyone should be able to enjoy the highest possible quality of life in this final phase of their life. This also includes, to an extent, the enjoyment of drink and tobacco.

How the hospice is run

The Sisters of St Elisabeth made the conscious decision to set up the hospice next to VinziDorf in order to be near part of their target group. VinziDorf is a long-term home for homeless alcoholic men and is operated by the Society of St Vincent de Paul. During the first year in operation seven patients were hosted at the VinziDorf-Hospice. Two of them were former residents of VinziDorf. Four were admitted from hospitals and one from another long-term home for homeless men. Ongoing operation of the hospice is financed by donations; monetary donations being especially important in order to cover costs such as staff, food and medicines. 

The team at the VinziDorf-Hospice is made up of various professions and supported by other organisations in the community. Carers are on site around the clock 24/7 and responsible for looking after the residents. Trained nurses and doctors from the Elisabethinen hospital are responsible for specialist palliative care and medical care, supported by a team of voluntary doctors that facilitate an on-call team at all times. Trained social workers from the hospital are also closely involved in the care provided. Administration and bookkeeping is carried out by the Elisabethinen hospital. Volunteers from the Styrian Hospice Association regularly visit the residents. As one of the volunteers said:

“This place is about dignity. Every person has dignity, and here at VinziDorf-Hospice they have the chance to discover that again.”


Read more posts on the EAPC blog about Palliative Care and Homelessness. Look out for the next post in the series from Wendy Ann Webb who will be talking about the spiritual concerns of homeless people.



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1 Response to Feeling ‘at home’ for the last time

  1. Pingback: Feeling ‘at home’ for the last time | EAPC Blog – Roberta Westerberg, MA

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