A different kind of journey: the Hospice Biographers’ road trip – Part I

Categories: Community Engagement.

Where to spend two weeks to time out? Some seek beaches and sun, others high adventure and excitement. We headed straight for Eastbourne.

It’s difficult to know where to begin our first Hospice Biographers’ road trip. Go for the big cities? Hospices with a long history? Regional centres? Eventually we decided to start at the bottom (i.e. the south) and work our way up.

But let me put away my road map for a moment and tell you what this is all about.

I’m Barbara Altounyan, a long time broadcaster and now a long distance van driver. I sold my TV company three years ago to become a professional audio biographer, interviewing and recording people’s life stories on behalf of their families, who want to preserve their grandmothers’ voices and precious memories.  

I’d already recorded my own father’s life story on audio when I was quite young. Either way, about 18 months ago I  decided to volunteer as an audio biographer at my local hospice. When I first started all my day care patients just ignored me. In fact it’s true to say they weren’t in the slightest bit interested. Then a patient took pity on me and gave me my first chance – pretty soon my microphone was running “hot “, with patients keen to record their family memories.

Then a few months ago one of my patients suddenly pushed away my microphone and said, “Barbara, you do realise that there are other hospices in Britain, don’t you?”

She had a point.

Time to think big, well bigger anyway. Why not start a charity that trains other journalists to record terminally-ill patients like I was doing?

I got going with a few friends. We sneaked in through the back door at the Hospice UK conference in Liverpool last November, borrowed a display desk or two, got ourselves black T-shirts printed with “THE HOSPICE BIOGRAPHERS” blazoned across our chests and started to hand out leaflets to anyone lured by our big tin of Quality Street chocolates.

Everyone seemed to jump at our charity idea, a free of charge service for hospice patients wanting to talk about themselves for the next generation to hear. Luckily for us our message was bite-sized, simple, and above all, cheap.

My next step seemed obvious. Persuade my long-suffering partner John to join me in his battered old van to stage a nationwide meet and greet hospice tour… without breaking up or breaking down.

We set off two weeks ago. Within seconds of leaving, someone (probably John) had forgotten to close the van’s back door. Our luggage and much loved bikes became strewn across one of Hackney’s busiest streets. Then it started to rain. Excellent start – clearly we should have cancelled our tour, we were after all very conveniently close to home.

But no, we pressed on with our soggy road map in front of us. 

We were bound for sunny Eastbourne. Heading up the east coast visiting hospices in Maidstone, Cambridge, Nottingham, Rotherham, Leeds, Hartlepool and Edinburgh.

We did eventually cheer up. Through a blur of purple and green, we were amazed at the diversity of the hospices. Some looked like Victorian mansions, others like contemporary boutique hotels, one was so new it didn’t have any patients yet.

But all shared the same big ambitions, vitality, skills and smiles. We secretly concluded that the staff should be running the country.

There’s much chatter along the way. Who’s got a Man Shed, smart new fundraising trends, government cutbacks, NHS ‘bed blocking’, the duration of inpatient stays, the rise of terminal illnesses among young people, eccentric historic beginnings, how to reach new communities others have failed to reach, outcomes, incomes, breadcrumbs, who did inspire St Gemma’s Teletubbies Igloo anyway?

We travel down south, this time on the west coast to Ulverston, Blackpool, Bury, Macclesfield, Stourbridge, Worcester, Cardiff, Bristol and Oxford.

Part II to follow…

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