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End-of-life doulas: The carers changing the way we die

End-of-life doulas in the UK

Doulas are more commonly associated with helping women in the final stages of their pregnancy and supporting them into motherhood. End-of-life doulas, on the other hand, work in a world that few people see and no-one really likes to talk about. But this profession, which some may consider strange, is growing in popularity.

With an aging population and a lack of knowledge and confidence to care for dying loved ones, there is a growing need for end-of-life doulas. And perhaps you can expect them to play a greater role in the lives of those planning their end-of-life care in the future.

The day-to-day life of a doula does not follow any particular routine, as each situation is different. Sometimes they will be with someone needing companionship or reassurance as they approach their final days; sometimes they are called to support a bereaved partner trying to adjust from being a primary caregiver to a grieving widow. This can mean that they provide support before, during and after the funeral.

Their flexibility means that they are able to respond to many different situations and needs — whether practical, emotional or spiritual. They are companions, listeners who forget the concerns of their personal lives to immerse themselves in the needs of others. A doula will have knowledge and experience in many areas, but they will also act as a liaison for others who can provide any specialist support needed.

Polly Senter, an end-of-life doula with Living Well Dying Well, describes the transformation she makes from crossing the threshold from her personal life to her work life as having to be “immediately receptive.”

As a doula, “you have to be able to allow the person to talk, allow them to share, and be there to listen to what they have to say,” says Polly. “You can’t go in with your own agenda, you have to leave your life at the doorstep.”

Polly feels that her work as a doula has affected her; she feels that “you quickly learn that we are all the same,” and because of her experiences she “has become a little more humble, more compassionate.”

The nature of an end-of-life doula’s work, unsurprisingly, means that they are exposed to a cocktail of emotions that few experience. To make sure that it doesn't all become too much, doulas are given constant support and are trained on how to manage the emotional weight that is an inevitable part of the job.

By talking to end-of-life doulas, you’ll discover that each is what some like to call a ‘people person’. And although it takes considerable training to become qualified — 21 days of extensive doula training as well as volunteering and written assessments — each has something that can’t be taught, something innate. Or, as Polly sees it, “it is a quality in someone.”

A survey from the National End of Life Care Intelligence Network revealed that two thirds of people in England wish to die at home. If these wishes are realised, it is likely that doulas will become an important part of end-of-life care in the UK.

A doula will not help you discover your faith, nor will they tell you what you want to hear, but they can help you spend your final days in the same way that you lived your life. Or as Polly modestly says: “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know the best way. I’m just here.”

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