Good neighbour campaign goes 'one step further'

By Adam Brimelow
Health Correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
The charity advocates talking to elderly neighbours about death

A leading health charity says the cold weather could result in thousands of people dying at home alone this Christmas.

Dying Matters is starting a home-visiting campaign with a difference.

It is asking people to keep an eye out for neighbours who may be frail and vulnerable, and then to go "one step further".

The charity is encouraging them to discuss plans for dying, to ensure wishes are carried out.

Detailed planning

Death is no taboo for Mandy Paine. She has end-stage lung disease. Doctors thought she'd die 20 years ago. She's planned in detail for the end of her life and she wants to help others do the same.

"I've always got a pocketful of pamphlets. I never go shopping without them, and I never come home with any in my pocket".

Mandy, who is 48 and from Littlehampton in West Sussex, chats freely about death with passers-by wherever she goes. She is a champion for the charity Dying Matters, which was set up to encourage this type of conversation.

"I suppose having the oxygen on makes people realise that you are a person with a life-limiting condition. And often you'll find people stop because they're frightened, and want somebody to talk to".

I caught up with Mandy during a visit to south-east London, where she was meeting a group of pensioners who have inspired a national campaign to prevent people dying at home alone this Christmas.

The Lewisham Pensioners Forum has begun handing out posters and leaflets encouraging people to check on their neighbours, to make sure they are warm, fed, and have some company.

Their campaign also urges people to plan for a good death. That means broaching subjects such as treatment at the end of life, discussing where people want to die, and talking about making a will or planning a funeral.

One of the group, Bridgit Sam-Bailey, says there's nothing morbid about it.

"Should death be such a difficult thing to talk about?," she asks.

"We have to be brave and accept that one day it will happen. It's in our interest to be prepared and to be ready."

Have to do it

Bridgit argues that making clear plans in advance makes life easier for those left behind. She admits that not everyone is comfortable with the subject at first, but says she has found people receptive.

Image caption,
Mandy Paine encourages people to discuss their death

"So far the people I've spoken with, they've taken my advice. They've got their wills done.

They've got their requests written out - I would like this done I want that done - and they're thinking along with me, we have to do it."

Dying Matters says across the UK more than one in 10 people over 65 will spend Christmas alone, making them especially vulnerable - with thousands at increased risk of dying because of the cold weather.

Sam Turner, a spokeswoman for the group, says it is important to do a bit more for friends and neighbours this Christmas.

"I think a bad death is horrific at any time of year but for some reason it seems even more abhorrent at Christmas, which is supposed to be a time of family and joy and celebration."

The charity is asking its 14,000 membership organisations to get out the message - to make sure nobody dies alone at home this Christmas.

"The weather brings out the best in a lot of people and we do look out for our neighbours.

"But this is about going one step further, and finding out - if people are approaching the end of their lives - what they'd like to happen.

"So hopefully people can have their wishes carried out and people can die well."

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