Karen McMillan - Author of Dying: A NZ Guide for the Journey
27 May 2014
Karen, Dying: A New Zealand Guide for the Journey has been written to help anyone who is dying, and their family and carers. Do you think people dying in New Zealand are empowered to guide their journey?
I think with support anyone who is dying in New Zealand can be empowered on this particular life journey. There is understandably a lot of care and attention for when we are born, but thanks to hospices and palliative care services in New Zealand, there is now just as much care and attention for when we are dying. I think there has been a shift in attitude over the last couple of decades where people are more likely to talk about death, where once it was treated as a taboo subject. Death and taxes seem to be the only sure things in life, so it is good that people are more open about what happens when someone is dying - it means friends and family are more likely to turn up and support the person who is dying, rather than leaving them to cope alone.
Death is a perfectly natural part of the cycle of life, but while we know this intellectually, it can be difficult to accept emotionally. For the person who has received the news that they are dying, there are many things that can help ease their days. Here are some of the tips from Dying: A New Zealand Guide for the Journey :
Try to live in the present, moment to moment. Live each day dealing with the day as it is, good or bad. Dwell neither in the past nor in the future.
Pace and clear your life. Take one step at a time and keep things as simple as possible. Determine what is truly important, focus on it, and discard the rest. Shed unnecessary baggage.
Deal with unfinished business - wherever possible - as this eases the path to death without distractions.
Get real. Talking about what really matters is difficult enough while we are in good health, let alone facing the end of our life as we know it. Total honesty with the self helps in the tricky task.
Find a place for laughter. A good sense of humour, an ability to see the funny side in tragedy, is not only healthy but also refreshing.
Seek assistance. If necessary, seek the expertise of competent counsellors and social workers. Get yourself a spiritual counsellor. If you find that the one of your choice is not able to assist you, find another.
Create a support circle. It's never too late to find a small group of friends or family with whom you are able to develop an honest and trusting relationship. They will help you on this, the most important journey of your life.
Approach your general practitioner for information. Your general practitioner can help you find out about palliative care.
I can't stress how important it is to get in contact with your local hospice. My mother signed up with her local hospice when she was terminally ill. She was so sick and in so much pain we all feared she would die in a few weeks, but with their expert help they got on top of her symptoms and she enjoyed nine months of quality living, well enough to enjoy outings, gardening and spending time with those who loved her, before she passed away peacefully.
The hospice movement is cherished by many New Zealanders. What are some of the other service providers that play an integral health in palliative care in New Zealand?
Hospice New Zealand is the largest palliative care organisation with hospices in many regions (www.hospice.org.nz). Nursing help can also come from Access Home Health (www.access.org.nz) or the New Zealand Nursing Agency (www.nznursing.co.nz). Other contacts that might be useful are New Zealand AIDS Foundation (www.nzaf.org.nz), Cancer Society of New Zealand (www.cancernz.org.nz), Alzheimer's New Zealand (www.alzheimers.org.nz), Motor Neuron Disease Association of New Zealand (www.mndanz.org.nz/network.asp) and the Muscular Dystrophy Association of New Zealand (www.mda.org.nz).
The guide covers all aspects of care and respect for the dying person. What are some of the ways people can support a dying person well that they may not have thought of?
The most important thing to support a person who is dying so to be available to see them when it is convenient for them and to actually listen to what the person wants. It is important to treat them as the person you have always cherished, a living person to be interested in and valued. It is important to adhere to their wishes as much as possible.
When my mother was terminally ill, I had to sometimes stand back and watch her do tasks that I could have done for her in a fraction of the time - but it was the right thing at the time to do as she was wanting to remain as independent as she could for as long as she could. Observe and really listen to the dying person's wishes and all the practical things and emotional support will flow on from there.
The guide discusses tips for caring for a person dying at home as well as the financial stresses that can occur. What can people do to plan to undertake this caregiving function and have financial and emotional resilience to cope well when the person they cared for has died?
It is important that the carers have their own support team and they take time off from doing the caregiving. It is a mistake to think you can soldier on by yourself and have the emotional resilience to cope, 24/7. When my mother was dying, I was the main caregiver and I moved into her home to care for her. But I had a team of people there to help me. I was able to continue working by doing most of my work from my mother's home, but two days a week I would work from the office and we hired a nurse to look after my mother on those days. My best friend, who is also a nurse, would look after mum on Friday nights, so I was able to a night off. My sister used to come and visit on Sundayafternoons with her children. We developed a routine that worked for all of us - and with the help of hospice, my mother was well enough for some months that she didn't need this round-the-clock care.
Financially there may be assistance from Work and Income, and it is important to find out the costs of any medical treatment that may be needed. It is important for the family to meet and work out a plan of action, considering how best to manage the financial and emotional burden. Also, let friends know the ways they can help. People often want to assist, but don't know what to do. It's okay to ask your friend who is a good cook to provide a meal once a week, and to ask your other friend who is a good communicator to be in charge of phoning people if there is any major updates. Hospice provides many services too, so it is good to talk to them about the ways they can help not just the person dying, but the entire family.
Whilst the book is on the topic of dying it includes many tips that can help the individual's well-being in times of significant stress. Can you suggest a tip from the book that you think people should apply when times get tough in their daily lives?
Music can be very helpful to people who are dying, as well as people during times of significant stress. Rather than music to engage us, it should be music of tranquillity. Depending on a person's taste it might be something like Gregorian chants, recordings of birdcalls, harps and bells, jazz music, ballads and popular religious songs, or hymns sung solo or with a full choir. Put on a relaxing track, lie down and listen for a time, and your stress levels are sure to drop.
Dying: A New Zealand Guide for the Journey
by Sue Wood, Peter Fox, Karen McMillan
Published by Calico Publishing Ltd
Win a copy worth $31
RRP $31 plus $5 postage and handling
Book review by Liam Butler
Karen McMillan lives in New Zealand and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her non-fiction titles include - Unbreakable Spirit: facing the challenge of cancer in New Zealand; Love in Aoteroa (titled Love Bytes in the UK) and Feast or Famine: a New Zealand guide to understanding eating disorders. Karen is also an award-winning fashion designer
Karen's editing of Counsellors Sue Wood and Peter Fox considered writing on the topic of dying has created an accessible and useful resource for both those reaching the end of their life and the people that care for them.
This guide covers the sociological, theological and physiological considerations pertaining to dying well. In addition Sue Wood uses her training as a Nurse and practice as an Aromatherapist to give readers some therapies that terminally ill patients may like to try. Sensible warnings are given about making sure that any interventions are checked by lead palliative care professionals. Sue also sagely advises people check that people are registered to their discipline by looking the New Zealand Charter of Health Professionals.
Mary Schumacher, Chief Executive, Hospice New Zealand thinks this guide is great too...
‘This is an amazing resource for anyone who is dying and for those caring for them, and is also essential reading for all health professionals. The approach is holistic, the writing sensitive, and the advice practical and easy to follow. It is a book to come back to again and again.'
For more information visit
To enter the Draw and win a Copy of the book CLICK HERE
Draw closes 10th June 2014 Open to NZ residents only.