On average 435 Australians die each day. Most will know they are at the end of their lives. Hopefully they had time to contemplate and achieve the “good death” we all seek. It’s possible to get a good death in Australia thanks to our excellent healthcare system - in 2015, our death-care was ranked second in the world.
We have an excellent but chaotic system. Knowing where to find help, what questions to ask, and deciding what you want to happen at the end of your life is important. But there are some myths about dying that perhaps unexpectedly harm the dying person and deserve scrutiny.
Myth 1: positive thinking can delay death
The first myth is that positive thinking cures or delays death. It doesn’t. The cultivation of specific emotions does not change the fact that death is a biological process, brought about by an accident, or disease processes that have reached a point of no return.
Fighting the good fight, remaining positive by not talking about end of life, or avoiding palliative care, have not been shown to extend life. Instead, positive thinking may silence those who wish to talk about their death in a realistic way, to express negative emotions, realise their time is limited and plan effectively for a good death or access palliative care early, which has actually been shown to extend life.
For those living closer to the prospect of death, being forced to manage their emotions is not just difficult but also unnecessary, and counterproductive to getting the help we know is important at the end of life.
Myth 2: dying at home means a good death
The second myth is dying at home always means a good death. While Australians prefer to die at home, most die in hospital. Managing a death at home requires substantial resources and coordination. Usually at least one resident carer is needed. This presents a problem. Currently 24% of Australians live alone and that’s predicted to grow to 27% by 2031. We also know many Australian families are geographically dispersed and cannot relocate to provide the intensive assistance required.
The role of the carer may be rewarding but it’s often hard work. We know timing of death is unpredictable, depending on the disease processes. Nurses, doctors and allied health professionals visit, problem solve and teach the carer to perform end-of-life care. They don’t move in, unless they’re hired in a private capacity; a possible but pricey alternative. Finally, specialist equipment is required. While this is usually possible, problems can arise if equipment is hired out for a specific time and the patient doesn’t die within that allotted time.
It’s not a failure to die in a hospital, and may be the best option for many Australians. While it would appear that large public or private hospitals may not be the best places to die, in many areas they provide excellent palliative care services. Appropriate end-of-life planning needs to take this into account.
Myth 3: pushing on with futile treatment can’t hurt
A window of opportunity exists to have a good death. Pushing on with treatment that has no benefit or is “futile” can be distressing for the patient, family and the doctors. Doctors are not obliged to offer futile treatment, but unfortunately patients or family may demand them because they don’t understand the impact.
There are cases where people have been resuscitated against better medical judgement because family members have become angry and insisted. The outcome is usually poor, with admission to the intensive care unit, and life support withdrawn at a later date. In these cases, we have merely intervened in the dying process, making it longer and more unpleasant than it needs to be. The window for a good death has passed. We are prolonging, not curing death and it can be unkind - not just for those sitting at the bedside.
The story of a good death is perhaps not as interesting as a terrible one. Yet there are many “good death” stories in Australia. There are likely to be many more if some of the myths that surround dying are better understood.
Sarah Winch receives funding from The Australian Research Council, The National Health and Medical Research Council and the University of Queensland. She is CEO of Health Ethics Australia, a registered charity that promotes death literacy for the Australian community and compassion safety for clinicians. The Health Ethics Australia Board work pro-bono.
Authors: Sarah Winch, Health Care Ethicist and Sociologist, The University of Queensland