Should death be a dinner table conversation?

Most people have a desire for their life to have meant something, and legacy planning becomes important. It may also be a time to tell family stories of their life and to resolve any past family issues.
Most people have a desire for their life to have meant something, and legacy planning becomes important. It may also be a time to tell family stories of their life and to resolve any past family issues.

Australia's death rate is set to double in the next 25 years, according to Flinders University, yet we still have trouble talking about dying in the same way we would another major life event.

"We do a lot of planning with pregnancy and our lifelong finances, but what about the end of life?" Professor Jennifer Tieman, director of the new Flinders Research Centre for Palliative Care, Death and Dying, said.

"The topic is very important for all of us and is the focus of widespread research, including to expand support for dementia patients and their families, and older Australians with progressive chronic and acute diseases and symptoms.

"We need to equip patients, their families and carers and health professionals with positive and helpful information - particularly given the demographic rise in the baby boomer generation and overcrowding of public hospitals and residential care facilities."

Aged and palliative care researchers at Flinders University are investigating the 'future of death' as part of their rollout of a suite of online and personalised tools to help make death and dying a more accessible and 'palatable' topic for everyone.

End-of-life conversations can improve quality of life and provide people dealing with an advanced illness with a much-needed sense of control, according to clinical psychologist Dr Ursula Sansom-Daly, who works with young people with cancer at Sydney Youth Cancer Service.

"When these sometimes difficult conversations are avoided, the quality of remaining life can be jeopardised," said Ms Sansom-Daly.

She said these conversations are an opportunity for people to discuss treatment plans, life-sustaining options, referrals to hospices and funeral arrangements, but also to reflect on their life.

"Most people have a desire for their life to have meant something, and legacy planning becomes important. It may also be a time to tell family stories of their life and to resolve any past family issues. It can provide people with a strong sense of self during a time when illness may dominate their lives, " Dr Sansom-Daly said.

"By having end-of-life conversations we know what our loved ones wishes would be and what they would want. It gives people more control in the end."

She said these conversations might not happen because people worry the patient will think they are giving up hope, or the families are unable to accept the advanced nature of illness.

"If we could become a more death literate society and understand that talking about end-of-life issues doesn't have to be an awful thing, that it can be empowering and enabling of choice and options, then I think we would be better off. It can contribute to a better death."