17/05/2013 13:20 BST | Updated 17/07/2013 06:12 BST

We Need to Talk More Openly About Dying


With the Court of Appeal considering assisted suicide, and Lord Falconer presenting a Bill on this issue to Parliament, it's an opportune time to reflect on our attitudes to dying and death in Britain - especially as this week (13-19 May) is also Dying Matters Awareness Week.

Whatever your views on the issue of assisted suicide, we need to have a much broader public debate about how the half a million people who die each year in Britain can get the support and care they need at the end of their lives.

For many people, talking about dying and facing up to their own mortality remains the final taboo, something either to be ignored completely or postponed indefinitely for a day that many of us still refuse to believe will ever come.

As new British Social Attitudes (BSA) research published to coincide with Dying Matters Awareness Week shows, there's a mismatch between what we say we feel comfortable doing and what we actually do.

While the majority of us say we're comfortable talking about dying, the reality is that most people are still shunning important conversations and practical actions to manage their end of life care and final affairs.

The new BSA research finds that just over one in three people have a will and less than a third say they have registered as an organ donor or have a donor card. Moreover, despite heightened public anxiety over care of the dying, from concerns raised over the implementation of the Liverpool Care Pathway to the Francis Inquiry into failings at Stafford Hospital, just 5% of people have set out how they would want to be cared for at the end of life if they couldn't make decisions themselves.

The research also reveals a major mismatch between where people want to die and current trends in terms of place of death. Latest ONS figures show that more than half of us die in hospital. Yet, just 7% of us say we would prefer to die in hospital, compared with two-thirds (67%) who would prefer to die at home.

There are encouraging signs that older people are becoming more confident in talking about dying and increasingly willing to make their wishes known. But we still need to do much more to lift the taboo which prevents people from talking about what they want, and which makes it so much harder for people who are bereaved. We plan for other important parts of life but put our heads in the sand when it comes to dying, even though it is inevitable.

If we were all able to discuss our end of life wishes and make plans in a more confident and better-informed way it's likely we would see huge improvements in people's experiences at such an important time for them and those close to them and that we would be less scared of dying.

You don't have to be ill or dying to make plans for your future, which is why at Dying Matters we are calling on people across the country to take practical steps by writing a will, recording their funeral wishes, planning their future care and support, considering registering as an organ donor and telling loved ones their wishes.