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What does a Himalayan hill station have in common with the hospice care movement?

Author: Suzanne Stevenson
21 April 2017

On National Tea Day Suzanne Stevenson, Head of Media and PR at Hospice UK, recalls a recent visit to the tea estates of Darjeeling and highlights how its world famous tea industry shares some similarities with the hospice care movement.

The author Jonathan Swift once memorably described tea as “water bewitched” and no-where is that truer than in Darjeeling, home to arguably the world’s finest tea.

This picturesque strip of emerald-coloured hills studded with tea bushes at the foot of the Himalayas is home to around 90 tea estates- an industry that dates back to the 1800s and the time of the British Raj.

At first glance hospice care and an artisan industry based on a remote hill station may seem worlds apart but during a visit to the region earlier this year I was struck by how Darjeeling’s flagship business shares some characteristics with the hospice movement and also faces some similar challenges.

Small scale, superb quality

Known as the “champagne of teas”, Darjeeling is renowned for its high quality, unique taste and distinctive aroma.

While its yield is on a smaller scale than other teas on the market its calibre is unrivalled and the expertise of its staff highly regarded.

Similarly, hospice care forms a relatively small part of the care system but is admired globally for its unique, premium person-centred care – reflected in outstanding CQC inspection ratings and the many grateful testimonies of families who have experienced its benefits. It has been described - to coin a Raj era metaphor - as “the jewel in the UK’s healthcare crown”.  

Pioneering spirit and culture of creativity

The development of the Darjeeling tea industry was largely down to its pioneering planters.

Adopting a creative and eclectic approach to tea-making and estate management which drew together different disciplines such as botany, agriculture and engineering and guided by human instinct, curiosity, passion and innovation they tried out new approaches to hone their expertise, which like hospice care, is very much both science and art.

In the same vein, modern hospice care evolved from the pioneering spirit of its founder Cicely Saunders – who used her knowledge of medicine, combined with other fields such as social care and spiritual support to chart new approaches and techniques for pain management and other aspects of care that were to transform the experiences of people approaching the end of life. 

It’s all about the human touch

The unique taste of Darjeeling is in large part down to the way the tea is cultivated and then processed in six different stages.

Like hospice care the human touch lies at its heart.

Each tea leaf is picked by hand, judging correct fermentation has to be done by nose alone and experienced workers can tell by touch alone if the right moisture level has been reached in the drying process.

From determining the best conditions for harvesting leaves to altering temperatures and timings during the drying and fermentation process, much hinges on the personal influence of the tea estate manager and their effective working and good communication with different teams to make constant adjustments that are crucial to the quality of the tea.

This has resonance with the highly responsive nature of hospice care which is regularly reviewed and adapted to meet terminally people’s different and often changing needs, to ensure the focus remains on what matters most to them and so they receive the best possible care.

At the heart of its local community

The tea industry is inextricably linked to Darjeeling’s local community as it employs hundreds of workers who often live on the tea estates with their families - many of which have worked there for decades.

Hospices are also at the heart of their local communities, albeit in a very different way, often with lasting links through different generations of families they have supported or embedded in other ways through education and training for local care providers or through community, fundraising.

The need to diversify and expand reach

The Darjeeling tea industry is predominately an export market, with three quarters of the product sold outside of India. In the face of increasing competition the tea gardens are diversifying into new products such as green tea and white tea and looking to expand and share their highly prized product with a much wider audience.

In contrast hospice care in the UK focuses on its “home market”, but hospices still face challenges to extend their reach, especially to people with different life-limiting conditions beyond cancer or people from certain equality groups- challenges that Hospice UK will be supporting members to address as part of its five-year strategy.

Hospices are also diversifying and branching out into new areas- whether developing different services to meet people’s changing needs or raising income in new and innovative ways.

Marketing matters more than ever

In a fiercely competitive market – Darjeeling’s tea industry is taking a leaf – so to speak – out of the coffee industry’s book which has successfully marketed its wares to mass audiences.

The unstoppable rise of coffee-based cafe culture has been attributed to the persuasive language it uses to attract buyers, effectively communicating what makes their product so special and sharing an aspirational vision far beyond the beverage itself that taps into people’s desires and feelings.

Similarly, with demand for hospice care increasing, hospices are doing more to market the distinctive and special care they offer in new and different ways and reach new audiences, whether through creative approaches to the way they present annual reports as demonstrated by Keech Hospice to inspirational films  like this one from Thames Hospice showing how hospice care touches people’s lives.

Finally, of course Darjeeling’s core product is synonymous with comfort and kindness – a soothing cup of tea offered in compassion during a difficult time can mean so much and powerfully touch people’s lives - just like hospice care.

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