Breaking the ice in palliative care … with an ice cream break

  • by Kate Bowman
  • June 4, 2019

Ice cream has a special place in the Unité de Soins de Support et d’Accompagnement (USSA) palliative care unit in Agen, France, where Catherine Renard is a volunteer. Catherine, also a member of the steering group of the European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC) Task Force on Volunteering, explains how ice cream helps to bring down the barriers of hospitalisation and brings together patients, families, staff and volunteers.

“What day is it today, nurse?”

“Wednesday,” she replied, with a glint in her eyes. “Will you be joining us?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world! What’s your favourite flavour, nurse?

“Strawberry with bits! And yours?”

“Oh no, it’s chocolate every time for me. That rich dark, smooth kind!”

On Wednesdays, the Palliative Care Unit in Agen brims with festive activity. The hallway, jollied up with decorations and snazzy curtains, fills with music, as cakes and brightly coloured, glass dishes appear on carefully laid tables…

Today, three volunteers are handing round ice cream. But not just any ice cream! A very special organic ice cream, hand-made with love by Benoît de la Lune, a local ice cream maker, who refers to them himself as “charitable” ice creams.

With a line-up of 17 mouth-watering flavours, the choice is dazzling. Starting with the old favourites, vanilla and strawberry, of course, then pear, lemon verbena, toffee, raspberry and lemon, coffee, hazelnut, mojito, rum ‘n raisin, the volunteers take orders from the patients in their rooms, whilst those that can make it down the corridor, come and join us in our bistro-style café.

Some patients prefer to stay in their rooms, and so we set up a cosy little table for them to share their ice cream intimately with their family or friends. Lightening the atmosphere, chatting about anything but illness, perhaps reminiscing over the ice creams of our childhood, or of our all-time favourite flavours.

And it’s hardly surprising if, when the workload allows, the nursing staff can be persuaded without much arm-twisting to take an ice-cream break with the patients and volunteers. Whilst for the patients, ice cream is the very thing that those who can no longer swallow continue to relish right to the end.

The chatter flows between family members and patients, but also the ward staff, the psychologist, ward secretary, and chaplain, who all join the festivities, demanding their scoop of ice cream with a comic pout, playing the ‘child left out’. They share this feel-good moment with us, so that exchanges aren’t the usual ones; the barriers are down, and the words that are usually damned up behind suffering, anxiety, and the burden of hospitalisation, start to flow more freely. And there’s a sense of a small window opening up onto another place, in another time,

These real life moments, shared over a scoop or two of ice cream, in palliative care, open doors, and hearts.

What the patients say…

“A bowl of ice cream, well, it wakes up your taste buds, but it’s also like escaping from hospital … patients and family and staff, just guests, naturally, round a table, sharing simple pleasures.”
Gwenaël 38 years, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)/motor neurone disease.

“Ice cream Wednesday narrows the gap between people who are, generally, in this life, distanced from one another.”
Georges, 72 years, with cancer.

Story originally published on The Blog of the European Association of Palliative Care.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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