The site of the Earth Hospice near Bethesda
A new social enterprise has launched with plans to create a hospice in rural Wales that will be wholly sustainable and operate as a community interest company. ehospice spoke to director Alexandra Wilson to find out more.
Early last year, just before she was due to set off on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, Alexandra Wilson came across a property for sale in her local area near Bethesda in Gwynedd, north Wales. The property, a holiday and retreat centre called The Joys of Life, is set within 10 acres of stunning greenery in Snowdonia National Park, and it sparked something of a lightbulb moment.
“I was struck straight away by this particular feature, it has five rooms which open onto a common courtyard, and they have mezzanine floors above them. I just thought they would make beautiful hospice rooms because the family of the person staying could sleep there” she explains.
Alexandra has had an ambition to create a sustainable community, where people cultivate and live off the land, for more than ten years. During the pilgrimage this idea merged with that of opening a hospice. “I had nothing else to do or think about all that time I was away. I kept bumping into people who would affirm that vision, people who were bereaved, who’d had somebody recently die in hospital when they would rather not have died there.”
When she returned, determined to make this a reality, she presented her idea for a sustainable model of living and dying to one of her trainee groups. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and subsequently a board of directors was formed, including a nurse and lecturer in palliative care, a funeral director, a psychologist and yoga teacher, holistic therapists, and Alexandra, who is an end of life doula and interfaith minister with a background in community development and social services.
If successful, the Earth Hospice will offer a radically different model of hospice care. “We wouldn’t be setting ourselves up as a medical hospice and we wouldn’t employ doctors or nurses.”
Alexandra explains that the hospice would have the infrastructure to provide for people as if they were receiving hospice care at home, with visits from district nurses and GPs when needed. “In the last two years I’ve accompanied four or five people through their death who desperately wanted to die at home but couldn’t, because it was not conducive to them being there, or social services didn’t agree” she says. This meant they had to die at the hospital, as there isn’t a hospice in the immediate area. The Earth Hospice would be able to fill this need.
“We thought we might have to employ doctors and nurses but it was the nurse amongst us who said we didn’t need to” Alexandra adds. “We can use the public services that are already there. It would add such a significant cost, so much bureaucracy and red tape, so we thought, do we need to? And when we realised we didn’t, we thought, why did we think we needed to? It showed that even though as a group we’re quite progressive in thinking about death as a community event rather than a medical event, we were still conditioned to thinking we would need nurses on site.”
“Death in our culture today is almost inseparable from being a medical event, whereas historically when people have died it’s been a community event.”
The concept of community is crucial, as a main aim is to benefit the local area. Alexandra explains that despite the lush surroundings there are major social needs. Bethesda suffers from poverty, high levels of unemployment and drug use.
“The Earth Hospice will be integrated in the community in the way that a care home and traditional hospices may not be” she explains. “There’s always this “othering” that goes on, with the place where you go to die.
Taking inspiration from a nearby social enterprise that trains people in how to use natural building methods, they plan to build a community hall with a café and library that can function as a space for people to meet, as well as hold funerals and perhaps even weddings. “There would be employment and training opportunities. There would also be an intergenerational community space. It’s so close to the town center and yet nobody currently accesses the land, so we would be opening up a swathe of nature to people.”
“Bethesda is actually an amazing town and I’m very fond of it. It has a very strong counterculture. A lot of people have rejected society and moved here to live alternative lifestyles which is quite exciting. It brings its problems, but there are a lot of people who are very engaged and socially conscious, and quite radical politically. The energy and the ethos of the town is part of what makes me believe this can work.”
Operating sustainably is another key part of how the Earth Hospice will benefit the area. “Community, heritage and ancestry, and the land are the three aspects of sustainability, but people often most associate it with environmental impact. If we do something that the community won’t buy into and support it won’t be sustainable. If we do something that is polluting and affecting the land negatively it won’t be sustainable. And if we’re not doing it in-keeping with the heritage and customs of the Welsh mountains then it won’t be sustainable.”
The area is home to what was once the world’s biggest slate quarry, and Alexandra says the local landscape still bears the scars of the once profitable mining industry. “The community has been so viciously exploited for slate that it feels necessary to make amends to the land.”
To do this the hospice will have solar panels and the onsite weir will generate hydroelectric power. Adhering to permaculture principles, they plan to grow their own food. The project will also incorporate burials. “The funeral services industry is a hugely unsustainable option, and to be cremated is a ludicrous cost to the environment. We would support people to see a way back towards burials, because the physical body is part of the Earth’s resources. If we burn it and put it back as ash then we’re not reinvesting those nutrients in the soil. It’s the idea of the circle of life. Instead of being buried in expensive and unsustainable wooden coffins we would explore shrouds and felting and natural materials.”
A recent crowdfunding campaign didn’t meet its target, so they are in the process of speaking to investors. “We’re really keen to not be grant dependent or charitable. My vision is that it is completely owned by the community. That’s why we started a community interest company and not a charity, so that it will be community-owned, run for the benefit of the community and nobody profits from it. That sense of ownership and equality is really important.”
Alexandra says people from different parts of the world have got in touch to ask for help implementing similar models of care in their communities. “I realise that we aren’t just starting something for the Bethesda community, we’re part of a movement of the next stage of hospice care, to break down the “othering” that happens. I don’t see the Earth Hospice as a place where people will go to die, I see it as a place where death is upheld as natural and normal, and all the attendant fears and grief that around are also held as normal.”
“The Welsh community around here has a strong culture around the dead, but it’s still not an easy conversation for people to have. [We want] the hospice to be more than just a place for a few people to die, but to be a cultural centre for people to explore their heritage, the land and their ancestry, and everything that weaves together what influences how people choose to live and die.”
For more information visit Earth Hospice