"DEATH loses its power over us when it is faced matter of factly," writes Professor Ken Hillman. And he is well qualified to know as one of Australia's leading intensive care specialists.
He is also a passionate advocate of improving the management of dying patients in acute hospitals.
His book, A Good Life to the End, asks the gritty question: why do so many elderly people linger in pain and confusion in ICU when all they want is to die at home in peace and with their loved ones?
Professor Hillman has worked in intensive care since its inception. But he is appalled by the way the ICU has become a place where the frail, soon-to-die and dying, are given unnecessary operations and life-prolonging treatments without their wishes being taken into account.
Many of us have experienced an elderly loved one coming to the end of their life in a hospital - over-treated and often facing a death without dignity. Families can be herded into making decisions that are of no benefit to the patient.
"Ageing and dying have become taboo subjects and are not discussed openly," Professor Hillman writes.
"The discussions are around how to 'fight' it, rather than how to accept and come to terms with it.
"Ageing and dying are no longer normal processes to be accepted as inevitable.
"Anti-ageing creams, tablets, dying and surgical procedures abound as people are dragged kicking and screaming through the ageing process, comparing themselves with others, hungrily accepting compliments about their appearance and spending a fortune on snake oil remedies.
"Against this background it is difficult for doctors to be open and honest about the prognosis of their patients, surrounded by impressive-looking machines."
Professor Hillman writes that he was warned people would not read a book about ageing and dying as it is too depressing. But this is not a depressing book.
Instead, it is a challenging read but also a frank and caring discussion of what is, after all, the fate of all of us.
It's a book we should read regardless of age. It will encourage many of us to make binding decisions about how we would like to die and to have those difficult discussions with family and loved ones.
A Good Life to the End will embolden and equip us to ask about the options that doctors in hospital should offer us but mostly don't. It lets us know there are other, gentler options for patients and their loved ones that can be much more sympathetic to the final wishes of most people.
An invaluable support for the elderly as well as their families, and a rallying cry for anyone who's had to witness the unnecessary suffering of a loved one, this book will spark debate, challenge the status quo and change lives.
About the author:
Ken Hillman is a practising intensive care specialist who is a Professor of Intensive Care at the University of NSW, the foundation director of The Simpson Centre for Health Services Research, and a member of the Ingham Institute of Applied Medical Research.
He is internationally recognised as a pioneer in the introduction of the medical emergency team, which recognises and responds to seriously ill hospital patients early in their deterioration. It has been adopted in the majority of hospitals in the United Kingdom, the US and several European countries.
- A Good Life to the End, Allen and Unwin, $29.99, www.allenandunwin.com