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Death over dinner

Flourish 06 Jan 2017

An innovative concept hopes to help Australians share their end-of-life plans with their loved ones.

Have you had the conversation with your loved ones? Discussing where you would like to die and who you want by your side might not sound like dinner party conversation but this once taboo subject is becoming a social norm.

Dying with dignity is something we all hope for but as our population ages and medical treatment prolongs lives, many people fear they will have no say in how their final moments will be managed.

Despite 70 per cent of Australians saying they would prefer to die at home surrounded by loved ones, a 2015 Auditor General’s report on palliative care found only 14 per cent had their wishes fulfilled. Most people agree that talking about end-of-life care with family is important but only 27 per cent of Australians have done so.

Australian Unity is supporting an innovative concept from the United States that could change things. Death Over Dinner, founded by New York-based entrepreneur and activist Michael Hebb, is an interactive website and conversation-starting tool that encourages people to have the important discussions in advance of the frantic decisions made in intensive care.

Tackle the topic

The concept was introduced to Australia by the Australian Centre for Health Research. Rebecca Bartell, the centre’s Executive Director, says it’s a brilliant idea and hopes it will be embraced by Australian Unity’s clients and residents.

The website helps people plan a dinner party with their nearest and dearest, giving them the tools to tackle the topic in ways that aren’t off-putting.

Rebecca says the benefits are clear. “When we went out and talked to the community, they wanted to have these conversations but really didn’t know where to start and were kind of frightened by it.

“With some of the official documentation it’s hard to know what you want in certain circumstances but the Death Over Dinner website creates a dialogue in a safe space with the people you love; and you can change it whenever you like,” Rebecca says.

Australian Unity hosted its first Death Over Dinner event at its Victoria Grange Retirement Community in Vermont South last year.

Derek McMillan, Chief Executive Officer of Independent & Assisted Living at Australian Unity, says the event encouraged people to have important discussions.

Love and respect

“Thoughts about death are often a difficult conversation for individuals to have and for families and friends to hear. But we often hear how comforting it is when these conversations have been had and a person’s wishes are known and fulfilled at the end of their life,” Derek says.

Professor Sanchia Aranda, Chief Executive Officer of Cancer Council Australia, has a background in palliative care and recognises the importance of end-of-life planning. In May 2016, Sanchia co-hosted a large Cancer Council Death Over Dinner event, which brought together health care professionals, patients and public speakers, including social commentator and author Jane Caro.

Sanchia is convinced of the concept’s value and is planning to host more events with older friends who want to broach the subject with family but don’t know how. “We’re hopeless at it as a society, as clinicians and families,” Sanchia says.

“We should be normalising death in the same way we’ve normalised birth. It’s part of life. We waste enormous amounts of money in our health system undertaking care that is futile and harmful to patients because we’re too frightened to have these conversations.”

Death Over Dinner gave Sanchia a mechanism to frame how the conversation might look. “The resources available are fantastic. It’s made me feel that I have an obligation to society to not let death be a silent part of our lives, to give some normalcy to what is in fact a very normal event.”

Sanchia’s niece is preparing for her own end of life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer; and open communication is helping her through it. She has set up a Facebook group to keep close friends informed of all her highs and lows.

“She’s incredible and it’s enabled a support network to grow around her versus just pretending that everything’s going to be all right,” Sanchia says.

“She also knows that I have the plans for her funeral tucked away and she doesn’t have to worry about that any more. She just gets on with completing her bucket list.”

words Stephen A Russell

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Information

Want to host your own Death Over Dinner party? Visit deathoverdinner.org.au


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