Hospice and palliative care volunteering in Finland: How we can further develop a precious asset


Since 1988, volunteers have played a crucial role in hospice and palliative care in Finland. But now, a more systematic approach to develop volunteer training and structures of volunteering in hospice and palliative care is about to start. Our guest writers, Leena PelttariRitva Pihlaja and Mirja Sisko Anttonen, on behalf of the European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC) Task Force on Volunteering, explain more.

Left to right: Ritva Pihlaja, Mirja Sisko Anttonen and Leena Pelttari.

The two first private, not-for-profit, hospices in Finland, Terhokoti in Helsinki and Pirkanmaan Hoitokoti in Tampere, were established in 1988. From the very beginning, volunteers have had an important role in them both, influencing positively the quality of life of seriously ill and dying people and those close to them.

One of the first volunteers in hospice and palliative care in Finland was Seppo Laurell, a former sea captain. During his visits to Britain he had heard about St Christopher’s Hospice in south-east London and the philosophy of hospice care. He participated in the first volunteer training course organised in Finland in 1986, even before the hospice Terhokoti was established.

During these years Seppo Laurell has noticed a huge change in hospice and palliative care, which has an effect on the work of the volunteers as well. He says,

“In the beginning of my career as a volunteer the people were in a much better condition as they came to Terhokoti. We had time to get to know each other. Now there is mostly very little time left.”

Seppo Laurell, a former sea captain who has volunteered at Terhokoti Hospice for more than 30 years. 

Seppo Laurell is still, at the age of 82, continuing as a volunteer. Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Seppo’s pioneer work as a volunteer has covered 2,336 visits at the hospice or at a patient’s home during more than 30 years.

Today, there are almost 20 hospital wards or hospices providing specialist hospice and palliative care in Finland. Three of them are privately run, and the rest are run by the public sector. As a Nordic welfare state, the role of the public sector is important and substantial in Finland. 


Development of hospice and palliative care in Finland

The central government has increased its interest in palliative care with recommendations to improve the quality and provision of care, as well as education and training. This has gradually led to better access to high-quality palliative care for terminally ill people.

But to offer good quality of life at the end of life is often much more than just offering good medical treatment and nursing. A dying person, and those close to him or her, have psychological, social and existential needs and questions. They often need a person to talk to, a person in no hurry, a person just to sit by the bed. Volunteering brings opportunities for peace and serenity, presence, outdoor activities and recreation to the patient and family – whatever the help or support they want and need.

In Finland, privately run hospices, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and non-governmental organisations, such as cancer organisations, have been organising this kind of voluntary work. However, in hospitals in the public sector there is only very little experience of volunteering and collaboration between professionals and volunteers. It is a big challenge to develop volunteering in public hospitals in a way in which it becomes part of normal activity in hospice and palliative care.

Furthermore, there is, as yet, no nationally organised volunteer training programme or content in Finland. But we hope this may change as the systematic work to develop volunteer training and structures gets under way.

COVID-19 – how can we ensure the valuable contribution of volunteers is not lost?

The outbreak of the pandemic COVID-19 has influenced the ways in which volunteers can participate in the provision of hospice and palliative care. To prevent the virus from spreading, volunteers were not invited to support the patients, their families and friends, to collaborate with the professionals or to just ’be there’. Also, the professionals noticed that something very important was missing. The additional value that volunteers bring to the community was suddenly exposed, in such an exceptional situation.

The longer the pandemic continues, the more difficult it becomes to keep volunteering going. At the same time, we need to find ways to maintain the commitment and enthusiasm of the volunteers by enabling them to be active, in addition to protecting people from becoming infected. Trying to find a balance is a significant and constant challenge.

We would be delighted to hear from volunteer managers in hospice and palliative care organisations how you are coping with this. Please share your ideas and suggestions by leaving a comment below or contacting us by email at the links below.

More about the authors…

Leena Pelttari (MSc Palliative Care) is Co-chair of the European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC) Task Force on Volunteering and Chief Executive of Hospiz Osterreich, the national palliative care association of Austria. Her nationality is Finnish.
Ritva Pihlaja (MSc Agriculture and Forestry) is studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Social Services and Health Care, graduating in December 2020, and formerly worked as a social policy researcher.
Mirja Sisko Anttonen (PhD) is Nursing Director at Hospice Terhokoti in Helsinki, Finland.

Look out for more posts in the next few weeks on ‘Volunteering and Palliative Care’ on the EAPC blog. And you can also find earlier posts on volunteering here. We are also planning to bring you another post from Finland – this time about the role of psychologists and social workers in Finnish hospices and palliative care services.

This entry was posted in EAPC Task Forces/Reference Groups, VOLUNTEERING IN PALLIATIVE CARE and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hospice and palliative care volunteering in Finland: How we can further develop a precious asset

  1. Pingback: Hospice and palliative care volunteering in Finland: how we can further develop a precious asset | Ritva ja vanhustyö

  2. Pingback: Hospice and palliative care volunteering in Finland: How we can further develop a precious asset – Residential Forum

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