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Will You Hold My Hand Please?
May 1, 2012

Anne-Mette Harder is a Danish Nurse. There is one important thing which makes her different from her other colleagues: She keeps company with the old people who are waiting to die. Most of the old people waiting for their death at the hospitals in Denmark wish to be at home during their final hours. However, this wish is usually not fulfilled since they have no one to look after them. Anne-Mette Harder, who lost her mother after a long period of disease, realized this potential in the country and established a private health company with ten more nurses in the team. They keep company with the patients, hold their hands, and read the bible. The price of a warm caring hand at your final hours is 500 Danish Krones an hour.

Even though the price is high and the company is a new one, the interest is rather high. An average of eight thousand people in a year die alone in Denmark. If old people without anyone to knock their door are not visited by some health staff, their bodies are discovered days, weeks, and sometimes months after their death; what announces their death is either a filled-up mailbox, or the sound of the hungry pets left behind, or some other way. If there are any relatives, they learn about it from the officials.

It needs to be underlined at this point that the issue is not specific to Denmark. A brief look at the reports from different countries within recent years reveals a similar picture. It is estimated, by Kenneth W. Wachter, Ph. D. at the University of California at Berkeley, that "the number of Americans between the ages of 70 and 85, without a living spouse, without any biological or stepchildren, and without living siblings or half-siblings, will total more than 2 million people by the year 2030." A research result appeared in The Guardian suggests that "Up to 60 people die alone in their homes each week in England without friends or family to support them or arrange their funerals."

The actual problem is not only having no relatives. There is a very dramatic indifference of family members towards the elderlies, which cannot be compensated by any public service however perfect it can be. Many developed countries provide luxurious hospices for their senior citizens, but the warmth of a real family aura cannot be substituted for. Answering the reporter asking why the relatives of the terminally ill abandon them, Anne-Mette Harder says, "After a long period of disease, the family cannot look after the patient anymore." For a more satisfactory answer, she confesses: "Even if the patient is their relative, people are afraid of visiting a person lying at a hospital. They forget death will one day catch them as well, or they fear facing death. Since family ties are not very strong, even the spouse of a person suffering from a terminal disease abandons them most of the time," alluding to example of the deceased TV speaker Kamilla Bach Hansen who died at 36 from cancer. At the beginning, Hansen had expressed that her greatest support was her husband, who later on left her when the course of the disease became irreversible.

Harder continues: "As a person who spent 20 years of her life in hospitals and with patients, I admire the care of some immigrant groups for the patients. When someone gets ill, all the acquaintances run to the hospital. At the beginning it seemed weird to me that people brought meal to the hospital. After I learned that it was a tradition, I appreciated it. The hospital visits are not formality; they never leave the patients on their own. They constantly come to visit the patients, raise their spirits, and pray for them."

In countries where people do not bother with raising children and the family relations are weak, it will not be very surprising if the number of such companies grow.

Priest Tove Fergo, former minister of Danish Churches, thinks that his people have a lot to learn from the other in terms of familial love. Fergo completes his words as follows: "These people have great respect for parents and family elders. They do not leave the elderly on their own, and do not break contact with relatives. We have just the opposite. Family concept is disappearing. They must present an example for us with respect to family life."

Putting aside complicated debates about tradition versus modernity, the first and foremost question here is to strike a balance in between and not lose the values that make us truly human. Something deep inside every one of us urges more than turning our head and dismissing the issue until we face the same situation one day. An urge for deeper meaning… something we can refer, as food for conscience.

Hasan Cucuk is the representative of Cihan News Agency in Denmark.