Former Lancashire hospice boss calls for taxes to fund "end of life living"

Stephen Greenhalgh tells reporter Fiona Finch why politicians need to make care of the dying a priority on the political agenda.
Stephen Greenhalgh who recently retired as Chief Executive of St Catherine's Hospice at Lostock Hall, PrestonStephen Greenhalgh who recently retired as Chief Executive of St Catherine's Hospice at Lostock Hall, Preston
Stephen Greenhalgh who recently retired as Chief Executive of St Catherine's Hospice at Lostock Hall, Preston

As Stephen Greenhalgh called for more taxation to help fund end of life living he knew he might not be popular.

In fact the former Chief Executive Officer of Lancashire's St Catherine's Hospice knows from experience that it's a subject politicians on the national stage like to dodge.

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But as Stephen Greenhalgh was preparing to leave his top post at the pioneering hospice he was in no mood to tread softly.

After 15 years as Chief Executive he has witnessed both the growing demand for end of life care and the urgent need for properly funded services.

He said: "It still beggars belief that in the 21st century so far as the work of hospices is concerned it's only 30 per cent funded. If the beginning of life was only 30 per cent funded there would be uproar ... and successive Governments get away with it. We seem to have slipped into a culture where end of life isn't seen as important, but of course it is."

He acknowledges that people are living longer and often with many complex health needs and said: "We have to adjust to help people to live well, rather than feel a burden on society or (be) just stuck in their own homes."

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Stephen points out that the general population's experience of the Coronavirus lockdown has given everyone an indication of how home confinement impacts an individual and has made some feel trapped in their own residences.

He said: "The general population has had a taste of what many elderly people have - of being locked in their own homes. That is often the experience of people who are near the end of their lives. So we should recognise how miserable that can be and how much more can be done."

He has now left St Catherine's Hospice and will be working, via his continuing studies for a PhD from Glasgow University, on a possible route map for the future. He anticipates this will be a timely contribution to the ongoing struggle to resolve the care crisis the country currently experiences.

He said: "It's proving to be an incredibly dynamic period to look at that particular subject. I want to produce something that will be a real help to hospices up and down the country, looking at the way forward."

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He has seen demand for services grow over the years and reckons St Catherine's has helped some 150,000 people including those with illness and their families, in the 15 years he was there. But he is concerned that many people never get such help and struggle to cope with end of life care - either giving or receiving it.

He said: "The rate of growth has been incredible, but none the less we are still not scratching the surface. There's so much unmet need out there.

"To be honest Governments have been skirting round this for a long time. I don't think as a country we've really got our head round it...and recognised that it's got to be paid for. If we want to have a decent end of our lives that's actually got to be paid for."

He added: "There have been various approaches by various Governments and none has made a serious difference to what is still going on at the end of life. Ultimately we need a great big strategic approach and I just think the successive Governments are scared of the vast cost involved."

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He concedes that higher taxation is not an obvious vote winner.

But he predicts if something is not done to meet those needs many,many more people will grow older dreading what their end of life care might comprise.

The 67 year old former Bury Grammar school student, who studied theology at university, served as an army officer in the Royal Signals for four years and as a RAF chaplain for four years. He also notched up 15 years working in local government in Blackburn and Cumbria, first as head of community development amongst disadvantaged communities in Blackburn and then as Assistant Director of Community for Cumbria County Council.

The father of six and grandfather of seven, added: "And I'm a trained counsellor ... I suppose that mix was quite helpful when applying for the (St Catherine's) job."

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Stephen, who also worked for the ambulance service after leaving the forces, said: "I think I'm the classic guy who didn't know what he wanted to do."

Emphasising that the dying require privacy but not isolation he said: "We need to fling the windows and doors open on end of life living and be thinking how can we make life better for everybody. Hopefully it's the neighbour down the street as well as a specialist palliative care nurse who can pool together all resources to help someone living with a dreadful disease."

Stephen, who served as a curate at Horwich parish church in the 1980s, also points out that it's not just money or professional expertise which counts, but something everyone can give: "One of the things I would like to say is that what strikes me about what we do is that wonderful thing called unexpected kindness."

He also pays tributes to the hundreds and thousands of hospice volunteers across the country.

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Stephen was keen to welcome visitors to St Catherine's hospice and make it a part of living well, as well as a place where the dying can be cared for and those in need given respite care.

Its popular cafe has provided the perfect venue to welcome people. He said: "We opened The Mill in 2014 and we've had 350,000 visitors to that cafe since it opened."

In addition he has sought to ensure educational help from hospice staff with such skills as lifting techniques is made available to those caring at home for someone who may be bedridden.

Above all he wants people to talk and think about how we can all help with end of life living and care: "We're trying to stop it becoming a mystery subject or something we recoil from ... I think one of the problems is that the end of life is so often hidden away. That's where we've had an agenda of opening up and welcoming people in. People want all the important things of privacy but they don't want isolation. People want dignity and respect ... at the same time unfortunately end of life is hidden away in "corners" and people pop into those corners now and again."

* Please share your views. Email [email protected] if you would like to comment or share your thoughts about end of life living and care and the way ahead.

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