It’s a question that hospice and palliative medicine physician Dr BJ Miller will be discussing at the University of South Australia this Friday, as The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre and Palliative Care South Australia present: A Better Ending: A Civic Model for Ageing and Dying.
Dr Miller’s TED Talk on palliative care: 'Not Whether But How' (aka “What Matters Most at the End of Life”), was ranked among the Top 15 Most Viewed Talks of 2015 and Dr Miller is currently co-writing a practical manual for preparing for death to help those navigate dying in modern society.
Given the rapidly ageing population of countries including Australia and the US, Dr Miller says the need for palliative care is set to get exponentially larger, despite the sense of taboo that exists on this subject.
“It has been a taboo. I think one thing is, we are wired to run away from the subject,” Dr Miller says.
“It comes from an inherent and learned love of life that seems opposed to death; but that is part of the problem. They are held in opposition: living and dying. We, in social contracts, decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. And it seems evolutionary to me that we have arrived at a place to take on this subject.
“This idea of “if we don’t acknowledge it, maybe it will go away” is a strategy that isn’t working.”
Tracey Watters, CEO of Palliative Care South Australia, describes Dr Miller as a modern day pioneer.
“Dr Miller has seen firsthand how we (society) spend our entire lives avoiding thinking about death, when it finally comes into view, there is panic, denial, or disbelief to cut through before people can focus on the experience and begin to make decisions to improve their last days,” Ms Watters says.
“The scaffolding our culture has built around death, in a bid to make it more bearable, suddenly feels unimaginative and desperately out of date. We are starting to see grassroots actions in the forms of the death cafe movement, advance care planning and assisted dying law all striving to make death more palatable. But is it enough? Will it change the way we die?
“The World Health Organisation’s definition of palliative care speaks to a ‘life affirming’ model of care. Dr BJ Miller is a world leader in holistic, patient centred models of care and his presentation will shine a light on what we need to do differently to make death feel more like ‘a part of life’.”
Dr Miller currently serves as Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at University California San Francisco and is an attending specialist for the Symptom Management Service of the UCSF Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the country’s very first outpatient palliative care clinics.
A podcast of the talk will be available on the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre website, next week.