Limerick set to become first Compassionate City in Ireland

Ruairi Dennis, stone carver, with the Light on the Stone Memorial in Abbeyfeale. Picture: Kathleen McLoughlin

As Limerick makes its bid to become Ireland’s first Compassionate City, Andrew Roberts discovers how the new title could change people’s views on death, dying and illness in the community.

The Compassionate Communities Project, started by Milford Care Centre in 2009, was inspired by research done by the Midland Health Board that found there was a fear and stigma surrounding palliative care in local communities.

“There was a fear of hospice and palliative care,” said Dr Kathleen McLoughlin, a member of the project’s steering committee.

“Patients told nurses to park their cars around the corner so neighbours wouldn’t see them coming into the house,” she said.

“Yet when patients eventually found themselves in those services they said they should have been in them years ago, as they felt their quality of life improved,” she continued.

The Compassionate Communities Project began small, reaching out to North-West Limerick City with a pilot programme. Development workers went into the neighbourhoods and, over many cups of tea, talked about death and dying.

Many families and community members told the workers that while local communities were very helpful at the time of a funeral, there was little support leading up to the death of a dying loved one.

“Communities don’t know how to have the conversation with each other and ask or offer assistance,” Dr McLoughlin said. “It is hard on families having to provide that constant care for a loved one who is dying, and especially difficult in the months after the funeral if they don’t have proper bereavement support.”

“There has been a lot of negative coverage of Limerick in years gone by and people who have had a lot of loss in their life,” said added. “So to be compassionate is crucial.”

In partnership with the Irish Hospice Foundation, they began the Good Neighbour Partnership that trained up volunteers to go out into the community and provide support for people who are in their last year of life.

“We recognised that most people spend their last year of life at home, so our volunteers assist with their social and practical needs,” Dr McLoughlin said.

It was important that the volunteer doesn’t do all the work, she added, because past research has shown that many volunteers burn out and don’t come back to service. Instead, they are meant to mobilise the community around the patient.

This can be having a family member mow the lawn, or a neighbour calling in or helping with the groceries, all done in tandem with the volunteer.

“They can seem like little things but if they’re not done they can cause a lot of stress and worry,” Dr Loughlin said.

Partly funded by the “Mayor’s Prize,” Milford Care Centre, and other agencies, the project has allowed communities to create special projects that range from memorial gardens, community artworks and stage plays, through their Seed Grant initiative.

In their bid to become Ireland’s first Compassionate City they will send representatives to the Fifth International Public Health and Palliative Care Conference in Ottawa, Canada, taking place in September 2017, and put Limerick’s case forward.

If selected, Limerick will establish a Compassionate Cities Charter that will aim to publicly recognise and support, through institutions like schools and workplaces, people with life-threatening or life-limiting illness, their caregivers and the bereaved.

Limerick would be the third city in world to have the title, following Bradford in England and Seville in Spain.

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