When my dad was dying, they forgot to ask him how he wanted to live

news | 22 May 2017

Professionals arrived to do the job they were sent to do – take bloods, give drugs, request a hospital bed at home. They didn’t take the time to understand that what Dad wanted most was to be outside, to feel the sun on his face.

When it comes to end of life care, we talk about dying. But in my experience, care at the end of life should not be not about death – it should be about life.

My Dad was a man full of wonder for the world. He loved nothing more than being outside, on a mountain bike or with a camera in his hand. He preferred to have a few, meaningful and close friendships than a wide group of acquaintances. He didn’t like lie-ins, or mayonnaise. He had blue eyes, and a particularly aggressive form of colon cancer that killed him within three and a half months of diagnosis, aged 57.

Cancer car-crashed its way into all of our lives, and following in its wake were a merry-band of professionals ostensibly there to care for him. The arrival of new people at our doorstep was relentless. Suddenly, my father, a man who invested deeply in knowing and understanding people, was surrounded by people who didn’t know him at all. This was clear from the first of many district nurse visits to our home. The nurse didn’t know how recently and rudely cancer had come into our lives. “I guess you’ve been fighting this for a good while,” she said. She talked about her grandson’s visit the weekend before. She didn’t know how much Dad wanted to have grandchildren.

Suddenly, my strong, capable, energetic family were paralysed in a system that we didn’t understand, and that didn’t understand us. We had to wait for information, to fire fight the latest deterioration, and desperately live out the time we had left once the calls and the visits were done.

After my Dad died, I began to work on a programme to improve end of life care in South London. When it comes to improving end of life care, calls are repeatedly made for more palliative care services, for better access to pain control, for better planning. All of these help – no-one should die in pain, in a place they did not choose, and without the support they need.

But the end of life is not just about dying. It is about living well, right up until the end. And throwing more professionals at “the problem” of dying will not enable us to die well (nor do we have the resources to do so). We must start with what it means to live well – for my Dad, to be outside, with the people he loved to share his life with, reflecting on the wonder of a life well lived and the pain of a life lost too soon.

 None of this is expensive to provide. But it requires fundamentally reframing what we understand care at the end of life to be.

Caring for people at the end of life means enabling people to live out their final days as they wish, helping them to reflect on the life that they’ve lived, and supporting them with the emotional and physical challenges that dying forces us to confront. Determining what this care looks like for each individual, and how it is provided, need not be led exclusively by professionals. In fact, it can and should be a partnership with our families, friends and neighbours.

As the power of medicine to extend and protect life advances year on year, we’ve handed responsibility for guarding against death to medical professionals. So too have we asked these professionals to “own” dying – to set the agenda about what end of life care looks and feels like, to lead the planning and choices we make, to initiate conversations, and even to make judgements about the best course of action. This expectation is unfair on those professionals, on those that are dying, and those that love them. Death is not simply a medical phenomenon – it is a social and emotional one, and that balance should be reflected in how we collectively set the agenda for what shape end of life care takes.

An army of professionals cannot meet all the needs of the dying and the bereaved. Professionals must share their knowledge with the loved ones that want to care, and we must all be courageous and upskilled in supporting our friends, families and neighbours, in death as in life. Our society and our health service must recognise the role we can, and must, all play in supporting people that are dying to live well, right until the end.

This article was originally published in the Independent