Ireland palliative care need may become highest in Europe

Conference hears 80 per cent of all Irish deaths are likely to need end-of-life care

Ireland may have the highest growing need for palliative care in Europe with the number of people over 80 projected to quadruple over the next 30 years, a conference on end-of-life issues heard.

Over 300 delegates, many of them health professionals, attended the 'Dying to Talk – conversation about death and dying in Ireland' organised by the the national Forum on End of Life, an initiative of the Irish Hospice Foundation. The event at Dublin Castle was hosted by Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness.

Keynote speaker Dr Katherine Sleeman, lecturer in palliative care medicine at Kings College London, said that for the Victorians, death was on show and grief was experienced in public.

Now we put death and grief behind “closed institutional doors and we whisper about it”.


Dr Sleeman said the ‘war on disease’ mentality affected everything, even the amount of money spent on medical research.

“Of all medical research funding spent in the UK, just 0.1 per cent of that is allocated towards research that aims to improve palliative and end-of-life care. That’s 10p in every £100 for something that will affect every single one of us. Medicine’s aim has become to avoid death at all costs and society seems to be willingly colluding in this.”

About 80 per cent of all deaths in Ireland were likely to need palliative care and there were enormous inequalities that needed to be tackled, Dr Sleeman said.

“And what’s more, Ireland probably has the highest growing need for palliative care in Europe.”

Journalist Mick Heaney, son of the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, delivered the Mary Holland Commemorative Lecture in association with the Irish Hospice Foundation and The Irish Times.

Broadcaster and journalist Matt Cooper spoke movingly about the deaths of both his parents and of how a junior doctor refused to give his father extra pain relief in his final hours.

“I remember arguing and saying: ‘He’s dying anyway, can you please help him to die in a way which is less distressing to him’,” he said.

Dr Ciara Kelly, also a writer and broadcaster, told of her grief following the death of her father and said she did not believe grief was discussed "nearly enough".

Dr Kelly urged professionals dealing with bereavement to “channel your humanity”. “Very often it’s about listening and it’s about being kind.”

The event also heard from Wendy Coughlan, who was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer over five years ago. She received a standing ovation after telling her story and of how she had prepared for her own death, even down to her desire for a wicker coffin.

Her daughter Helen said Wendy and the rest of the family had somehow managed to integrate the fact that she was living with a terminal illness into their lives. “It’s just part of our family story now.”

Dr Brendan O'Shea of Trinity College Dublin urged professionals to get their patients to use the Irish Hospice Foundation's end-of-life planning tool 'Think Ahead' to help them prepare for their deaths and to ensure their wishes were respected. Some 40,000 of the packs have already been distributed.

Further information on the planning tool is available at