Recent weeks have brought into sharp focus something that we all fear and neglect to talk about, our own mortality. The coronavirus pandemic, which at the time of writing has claimed more than 170,000 lives across the world, has forced many of us to confront the fact that we won’t be here forever.
For the palliative care sector, this confrontation is very much part of the job description and is not the taboo subject that it is in wider society. For the many care homes and hospices across the UK, end-of-life care is about achieving the best possible quality of life for patients.
One such facility is the Marie Curie hospice in Newcastle, which has been hit hard financially and operationally by COVID-19.
Adam Serfontein is chairman of the development board at Marie Curie Newcastle and describes the combination of increased demand and reduced ability to do normal fundraising activities as a “perfect storm” for the hospice.
“The current situation is terrible for all charities because we can’t raise the money we normally do through events,” says Adam.
“The largest money raising event of the year is the Daffodil Appeal where millions are raised across the country and many hundreds of thousands of that is raised in the North East.
“It’s the biggest opportunity Marie Curie has to raise funds.”
Understandably, scores of events in support of the Daffodil Appeal have had to be cancelled in line with social distancing guidelines.
The Government has announced a £750 million funding lifeline for frontline charities, which Marie Curie will be able to access alongside many others, but Adam says that although the support from Government is welcome, “the shortfall is still enormous.”
He explains: “The demand for services is much higher than it normally is. We’ve got 21 inpatient beds but they are all currently full.”
Protecting patients against coronavirus is another real threat to the hospice.
“It increases the cost of operation,” says Adam. “There’s a cost associated with the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and there’s a need for increased staffing levels because you can only have one person going in to see a patient at a time.
“So, the demand has gone up, the operational costs have gone up, and the income is significantly down.”
The challenges facing Marie Curie Newcastle are replicated right across the country, where reports of increased levels of coronavirus infection are being reported in care homes and hospices all the time. But what doesn’t often make the headlines is the amount of financial pressure these services, many of them registered charities, are under at a time when people need them most.
Adam adds: “It is unconscionable to think that a 21-bed hospital in the West End of Newcastle that is there solely to deal with palliative and end-of-life care would be materially affected by this.”
Marie Curie has done some excellent work around generating awareness for end-of-life care and encouraging more people to have those difficult conversations so that, should the worst happen, families are in a much better position to know what their loved ones’ wishes are.
It’s also important to break down some of the stigma around dying as so many still approach the subject with negative and daunting thoughts.
Adam describes a patient at the Newcastle hospice who was coming to the end of his life and wanted nothing other than to have one last gin and tonic with his wife – something that reminds us of our shared humanity, no matter how dire the circumstances.
The current crisis allows us to engage with an issue that is fundamental to our lives but hardly spoken about either in public or in private. It also reminds us that we will need our charitable sector to be firing on all cylinders as we emerge from this crisis, providing support, advice and quality care to all who seek it.