The one topic to ruin a good dinner party

The one topic that will ruin a good dinner party

In Community and Relationship, Politics, Social Development and Justice by Professor Ken HillmanLeave a Comment

I have long been fascinated by death and dying and in my role as an intensive care specialist at the University of NSW I am faced with the reality of these topics every day.


But this is one topic guaranteed to stop a dinner party dead, especially when it comes to people outside of the medical or palliative care professions actually talking about this subject.

I often find myself in this scenario at an event, dinner or party when asked what I do, or my interests are. When I say, “Well, I practice intensive care medicine, but I’m really interested in ageing, death and dying,” there’s just silence around the room.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying that ageing is like pornography in our society.


We speak about Botox and hair dyes and liver cleanses, but we’re afraid to talk about ageing, death and dying. These subjects are taboo, because people fear them. The more we talk about these things, the more open and acceptable the conversations will be and the less chance we’ll be ruining dinner parties when we bring the subject up!

People don’t want to talk about death and dying. And we don’t want to imagine our loved ones dying or in pain. We avoid it because it’s a hard conversation to have. But it’s the most important conversation.

Too important to avoid

82% of Australians feel that talking about their own death and dying is important, but when it comes down to it, most people don’t actually have the conversation.

And there are some realities when it comes to our ageing population.

In 2016, there were 3.7 million Australians aged 65, and that number is expected to grow. By 2056, it is projected there will be 8.7 million older Australians, and by 2096, 12.8 million people will be aged 65 years and over. With Australia’s ageing population, it’s essential that people talk to their friends and loved ones about their end-of-life care wishes.

It’s not easy to raise this subject and I’m not saying it’s something that needs to be part of your regular family dinner table conversation, but the more we take away the taboo, the better we will all be when faced with this life reality.

Conversations about death need to be a part of our normal culture, rather than something we tiptoe around. I’ve had the conversation with my wife about the end of life. In fact, that was very early on in my relationship with her, the second time we met.

Think about what you want

Have a think about what you would like if you were facing the end of your life, for example. What type of funeral you would like or not wish for. Even a bucket list.

As an example, this is the type of list I’d like for my own end-of-life care.

  • I’d like the last few hours or days of my life to be symptom free, to have no unpleasant symptoms. That’s easy today with Palliative Care.
  • Number two, I’d like to have people who I’m very close to with me. But I wouldn’t like that to go on for days and days, because they’d just get sick of it; so we’d need a roster.
  • Thirdly, I’d like to hear Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing Four Last Songs.

Talking about this subject is the best way to make it part of your own life rather than something that’s hidden under the carpet.

National Palliative Care Week runs from 20-26th May 2018. It’s the perfect excuse to start the conversation with your loved ones.

Find out more about National Palliative Care Week at


About the author

Professor Ken Hillman

Professor Ken Hillman is Professor of Intensive Care at the University of New South Wales, the Foundation Director of the Simpson Centre for Health Services Research and is an actively practising clinician in Intensive Care, at Liverpool Hospital which complements his interest in health services research – developing and evaluating new and innovative ways of practising health care.

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