A Human Room for Dying

Since April 2016 the Albany Community Hospice in Western Australia has hosted an “immersive art space” called ‘A Human Room,’ designed by artist Efterpi Soropos to “reduce stress, anxiety and suffering

human room.jpg
A Human Room

A Human Room is a space with softly textured walls, dim lighting, and “multisensory content, in the form of video, sound and lighting sequences.” Hospice patients lie in a reclining chair for between twenty minutes and two hours, and the mix of lighting, sound, and visuals “helps distract patients from their pain.”

Dying somewhere pleasant shouldn’t be such an unusual thing. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that a traditional hospital surroundings – harsh lights, reflective surfaces, echoey floors, and being woken up five times night – are as far from a peaceful place to end one’s life as it’s possible to get, and yet hospice service worldwide is underfunded, and only those who meet a very specific criteria get a bed there.

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One of the 12 visual displays available in the Human Room

I talked to my daughter and some of her friends about death at the beginning of 2015. With my grandmother so close to the end of her life it made me want to make sure my daughter knows what my wishes were, and I asked her about hers too. Usually when we think of places for dying it’s a choice of home, hospital, or hospice. It was fascinating that she and three of her friends (all early 20s) wanted none of these. They had in mind a place you could go to die that was akin to a resort, or a Bed & Breakfast in the country. Somewhere with animals to pet and/or cuddle, regular visits from medical professionals offering excellent pain relief, and comfortable beds. Somewhere your family wouldn’t have to clean up after you, or come home from work one day to find your body. Maybe offering dying spaces is the next cottage industry for ex city-dwellers on lifestyle blocks.

Specialized death spaces make sense, because death doulas are already a thing. A doula is more traditionally associated with birth. They offer non-medical help and support to the new parents and their families. And yet we often have more experience with birth and babies than we do with death. It only makes sense that we have people to help us get through the emotional process of dying.

I’m definitely with my daughter on the bed thing. When my grandfather died the most vivid detail is that the hospital bed was too short for his six foot frame. He couldn’t stretch his legs straight. It seems such a small thing, but to end one’s life so uncomfortably for such a basic reason seems intolerable and unnecessary. Although I sleep alone I have a queen-sized bed. I hate small beds. I bitch and whine if I have to sleep in one in a hotel overnight. Beds should be big enough for cats, and quilts, and cuddles with loved ones, for books and the TV remote. They should be big enough to stick your legs out the side of the bedcovers to cool off. Making someone end their life in a hard, narrow bed, chilled by thin, worn, industrial-laundered sheets is an indignity.

As far as the Human Room’s visual experience goes, something better and non-bespoke is coming: virtual reality system Oculus Rift.

I linked a few days ago to TheRadBrad playing Edge of Nowhere on Oculus Rift. The technology is new and clumsy. Brad – along with many other players – gets motion sickness, and the headset leaves red marks around his face to the extent he can’t play for more than 20 minutes at a time. But this will change. It will improve.

When I’m dying, I want somewhere comfortable, and warm, with all the drugs. Just this in itself will be a challenge: medical professionals rate women’s pain as far less important – or real – than men’s pain. But once the basic necessities are sorted, I want a series of virtual reality experiences. I want to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef, walk the streets of Shinjuku, check out the stalls and rides at the the Feria de Sevilla. I want to hike to the top of Isabela Island in the Galapagos and see the pink iguanas, and take a drone flight along the path of a melting glacier in Greenland. Just like social services now that rent out car seats for babies at a nominal cost, we will need a service that rents out whatever latest equivalent of Oculus Rift is available, along with programs for them that let us spend the final months, weeks and days of our life saying goodbye to our planet from the comfort of our beds.

surface melt greeland pic by nasa
Greenland ice melt, photo by NASA

Betsy Davis took her life in California this week. I cried when I read the article, but it was because I thought it was beautiful. We don’t all get the privilege of dying with advance notice, or living in a place where physician-assisted suicide is legal, but having a non-horrendous experience, one that helps you deal with your pain and maybe, possibly, even offers pleasure, should be available for everyone, not just a lucky few.

 

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