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Lipstick Project aims to bring dignity to hospice residents in their last days

The Lipstick Project’s Leigh Boyle says she got the idea , Executive Director and Founder of the The Lipstick Project, is photographed in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, January 20, 2013. The Lipstick Project works in partnership with hospitals and hospices to bring a spa experience to patients who are either in recovery or who are approaching the end of their life. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Even in the face of death, there is a healing quality in beauty.

In essence, that's the philosophy of the Lipstick Project, an all-volunteer effort that has been cleared by Vancouver Coastal Health to provide free makeup, massage, hair-styling and other services to residents of the North Shore Hospice.

Founder Leigh Boyle was inspired by a friend whose mother-in-law went through the last stages of her life at the hospice, which has a capacity for 15 patients.

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"One of her wishes towards the end of her life was to have her hair and her nails done, because she came from a generation of women who did this every day and they never went out without lipstick on," said Ms. Boyle, a 25-year-old premed student. "They always had their hair done and these things. That helped her feel like herself."

Now such services will be available, for free, to others at the hospice. Last week, the health authority signed a year-long agreement to deliver professional services ranging from manicures to pedicures, hair cutting and makeup, says Anna Marie D'Angelo, a spokesman for Vancouver Coastal Health.

Volunteers with the Lipstick Project are to be trained to work in a hospice environment and understand the challenges facing residents. Ms. Boyle says she is hoping to have service available by spring. Oliver Chan, the hospice's program manager, sees that as doable.

Mr. Chan, who is relatively new to the hospice, says even though residents are near the end of their lives, the cosmetic services offer comfort and dignity. In meetings, he said he has been struck by the passion and energy of the Lipstick volunteers. "That will be good for the patients – not just the service, but the companionship and passion," he said.

In 2010, Ms. Boyle was working with an NGO in Ethiopia involved with women suffering from obstetric fistula, a childbirth injury resulting from obstructed labour. That's where she said she first got involved with providing beautician services to the ailing.

"I bought a few bottles of nail polish at the local store and some hand lotion," she recalled, adding she provided services herself. "Of course, it was awkward at first. We didn't speak the same language. I wasn't saving anyone's nails. I was painting nails."

Back in British Columbia, Ms. Boyle says she has recruited volunteers – enough professional stylists for two teams of five to eight people. The idea would be to have them provide free services – to both women and men – two days a week. She said she expected men would prefer having their hair washed, nails cleaned and shaped, and neck and feet massaged.

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As she developed the idea throughout 2012, also raising funds to cover costs, she focused on the North Shore where she was raised.

"There are a lot of unknowns but we're doing our best to cover all of our bases," she said. "We are not doctors. We're not nurses. But we have a group of people who really want to contribute to their community and have a unique skill set to do so."

She said she did not expect any of this would be easy for volunteers. "We will come face to face with our own mortality and it will inevitably, at some point, bring up different issues and feelings." Ms. Boyle said she has recruited professionals to provide the services – which, in fact, rules her out from doing so herself. "That ensures a standard of care, and we are holding ourselves to a very high standard."

Ms. D'Angelo said she is not aware of any similar services being provided in other coastal hospices at this point.

Sue Hurd, acting executive director for the Vancouver Hospice Society, said the concept has its place. In her experience dealing with those nearing the end of their lives, there is an interest in such cosmetic measures.

"Little things like toes being painted and nails done make people feel like they're still worthwhile," she said . "So often, dying people feel discarded."

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