Why Now? – The Increased Need For Palliative Care In Modern Society

Written by Helen Topping

Any compassionate society has always felt the need to make people as comfortable as possible as their lives draw to a close. Our society is no exception, and the concept of our loved ones and ourselves dying alone in insalubrious circumstances is a troubling one. In the modern world, however, it seems that there is more need for palliative care units and a general enhancement of understanding about death than ever before. Operations like the Asia-Pacific Hospice Palliative Care Network are deeply needed in this day and age, for many reasons. Here are just a few.

We’re Living Longer

While the length of your life depends greatly upon your personal circumstances, in general people all over the world are living longer – far longer – than previous generations did. There are various reasons for this [1], including advances in medicine, greater knowledge of how to cut one’s risk of diseases like cancer [2] and measures to improve the safety of homes, workplaces, and consumer goods. While this trend is perhaps not true over the entire Asia-Pacific region, those nations to whom it does apply are paradoxically finding that our enhanced longevity is leading to a greater need for palliative care? Why? Well, everybody has to die of something eventually. The fact that people are living longer means that we have more elderly people in general – and these people’s lives are much more likely to trail off over a long period of time than they are to be taken suddenly and unexpectedly by accident or disease. All of this creates a greater need for hospices and other such services in which our ageing populations can lived out the rest of their lives peacefully.

Society Is Changing

In the past, those in need of palliative care would have been looked after by friends or family. This is no longer the case so much. For a start, the lengthy lives enjoyed by today’s seniors means that they may well outlive those who could perform this duty. People who die alone frequently do so not because they have been unpopular in their lifetimes, but simply because they are the last of their circle. Furthermore, we no longer live in the small, tight communities that we once did. Children and their parents may live far apart, brothers and sisters may see each other only once a year, if that. Whereas before people lived in small societies in which people knew each other and would care for the sick, society nowadays is much more anonymous, and people may be separated by long distances from those close enough (emotionally) to care for them. Indeed, in 2013 China was forced to bring in a law requiring people to visit their ageing parents [3], so bad had the issue of familial separation and isolation of the elderly become. Our elderly are not always callously abandoned – the time demands of the modern workplace [4] and our hectic lives means that many of us simply do not have the time to devote to the care of those who are elderly or sick.

There Are Fewer Young People

Overall, the planet is facing a devastating population explosion [5], brought on in part by the increased longevity mentioned above. However, some Asian-Pacific nations are faced with a declining birth rate as well. While this by no means threatens these nations with extinction, it does mean that the pyramid of dependency is in danger of becoming inverted, with far more elderly people than there are young people to support them. Families worldwide are choosing to have fewer and fewer children [6]. There are very good reasons for this [7], but it does raise the question of who will be left behind to look after the elderly as they near the end of their lives. The solo child of a modern family is likely to have to support not only her/his parents as they grow older, but also their grandparents and possible great-grandparents if the trend for longevity continues. This is a heavy burden, impossible for one individual to bear unless they are very wealthy. As such, we can no longer rely upon families to provide palliative care, and must look instead to alternatives. The APHN is trying to provide and enhance such alternatives – and their work is more needed now than ever before.

[1] Royal Geographical Society, “Who wants to live forever? – Why are people living longer?”

[2] KwikMed, “8 Ways To Effectively Cut Your Risk Of Breast Cancer”

[3] Malcolm Moore, “China introduces law requiring children to visit parents”, The Telegraph, Jul 2013

[4] Dhara Ranasinghe, “Culture of long work hours entrenched in Asia banks: report”, CNBC, Aug 2013

[5] Carolyn Kinder, “The Population Explosion: Causes And Consequences”, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

[6] East-West Center, “Declining Birth Rates Raising Concerns In Asia”

[7] The Economist, “Why the Japanese are having so few babies”, Jul 2014