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Lighting the way

Care team leader Sabine Grieder checks up on a Lighthouse resident (swissinfo)

Zurich's Lighthouse hospice is marking its tenth anniversary of caring for the terminally ill.

A gala dinner is being held to celebrate this weekend's milestone but also to raise much-needed funds for the future.

"The Lighthouse began its life during the darkest days of AIDS, when the disease was still the subject of hysterical headlines," recalls hospice leader Mario Odoni. "The aim was to offer a beautiful haven where people could be accompanied through the final stage of their life - and in as dignified and independent a manner as possible."

Since those early days, improved medical treatments have helped to radically extend the life-expectancy of the city's AIDS patients - forcing the hospice to rethink its purpose as well as increasing the pressure on funding.

"Although many people still think of us as an AIDS hospice, we now look after more and more patients with cancer or other terminal conditions," points out Odoni. "But that makes life harder for us in financial terms because we only receive state subsidies for the patients who are suffering from AIDS and HIV."

Even those state subsidies cover only a third of the cost of housing an AIDS patient at the Lighthouse, with the remaining two thirds having to be met by sponsors and the patients themselves.

Another ten years

With spiralling medical costs, highly-intensive nursing and an increasing apathy towards AIDS among the general public, Odoni says he is unsure if the Lighthouse will still be around in another ten years.

"But if we're not here, then I hope that other organisations will take on the role of offering dignified palliative care, rather than leaving young patients to die in hospitals or old people's homes.

"I still think Switzerland has a long way to go in this regard, even in comparison to our European neighbours. And without places like the Lighthouse, death and dying will again be seen not as a natural part of life, but rather as a failure of medicine."

Warming

While the financial prospects of the Lighthouse may look a little on the gloomy side right now, the interior of the building itself is surprisingly bright and warming.

Located in a quiet residential district, the house contains 16 bedrooms, which patients are free to fill with their own furniture or keepsakes. Showing swissinfo around the Lighthouse, care team leader Sabine Grieder points out a craft workshop, a meditation room and a fitness room.

Residents can choose how they spend their time and can eat with other patients or cook for themselves if they so wish. Those who are fit enough can also head out into town whenever they want, provided they inform the carers.

But clearly this is no hotel. At the end of one corridor a bouquet of flowers, a condolence book and a lit candle pay tribute to a patient who had died on the previous day. His was the third death of the week - an unusually high figure.

"Weeks like this do take their strain on the residents and on the staff," Grieder admits. "It's very sad, but it's also beautiful to see the person finally calm and at peace.

"Our work with the residents is very individual and intimate and so of course we become very close to a lot of them. And we laugh just as much as we cry. So although it may seem from the outside like a house of death, in fact it's a house that's extremely full of life."

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

Lighthouse

The Lighthouse is funded in equal part by state subsidies, private donations and the residents themselves.
Non-HIV patients now account for more than a third of the hospice's population.
Around 300 residents have died in the hospice since its creation in 1992.

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