Monday 19 March 2018

RTE's Mary Kennedy on how her mum's death spurred her to join the hospice movement- 'Mam's carers were so loving and respectful'

Hospice Sunflower champion Mary Kennedy reveals how hospice ethos helped her deal with her mother's death

Mary Kennedy with hospice dog Rian who received a Sunflower Hero Hospice Award at the launch of the 2016 Sunflower Days. Photo: Robbie Reynolds
Mary Kennedy with hospice dog Rian who received a Sunflower Hero Hospice Award at the launch of the 2016 Sunflower Days. Photo: Robbie Reynolds

My mother Pauline died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 83. I suppose nobody in this country hasn't been touched by cancer in some form or another.

Mam never actually made it to the hospice but she was cared for in Tallaght Hospital by people who were just so kind, so loving and so respectful that it felt like the whole ethos of hospice was there. They found time to paint Mam's nails and apply her make-up every day. They even asked for her hair colour to be brought into them and they touched up her roots. I found that very gratifying, I have to say.

I have as recently as last summer had a really lovely insight into the wonderful work of the hospice because we did a piece for Nationwide in Our Lady's Hospice in Harold's Cross. We filmed it on a day in July and then we transmitted it in October.

From the time we went through the gates it was a lovely environment - it was very peaceful, very tranquil and it was a lot of fun and a lot of laughs with the people that we met on that day. It made me think once again that yes, I am glad to be involved in the hospice movement and to be supportive in the tiny way that I can.

Broadcaster Mary Kennedy launches Hospice ­Sunflower Days 2016 with Saoirse Martin (7) and Seren Martin (5) from Blessington, Co Wicklow and hospice dog Rian Photo: Robbie Reynolds.
Broadcaster Mary Kennedy launches Hospice ­Sunflower Days 2016 with Saoirse Martin (7) and Seren Martin (5) from Blessington, Co Wicklow and hospice dog Rian Photo: Robbie Reynolds.

All of the staff that we spoke to and all of the volunteers and the clients - the people who were in the hospice - just exuded this feeling of dignity and gentleness and compassion and respect.

Rian, a golden retriever who is a specially trained palliative care dog, was a lovely presence there. He is a dote and an absolute star.

Hospice or palliative care involves the total care of patients and their families at the stage of a serious illness, where the focus has switched from treatment aimed at cure to ensuring quality of life.

No hospice is fully funded by the State. Sunflower Days is one of the annual fundraisers for the hospice movement in Ireland and it is hoped that €1 million will be raised. While the event is coordinated on behalf of the hospice movement by the Irish Hospice Foundation, all of the funds raised locally stay locally.

Three quarters of Irish people want to die at home, however, only 25pc will get to do so, partly due to lack of services.

The Irish Hospice Foundation has a Hospice Friendly Hospital Programme aimed at ensuring that end-of-life, palliative and bereavement care is central to the everyday business of acute hospitals. Tallaght Hospital, where my own mother died, has signed up to this programme.

This Friday and Saturday, June 10 and June 11, volunteers will be selling sunflower merchandise including sunflower pins for €2 each to help fund their local hospices.

Volunteers are the backbone of the Irish hospice movement in Ireland.

It is lovely that volunteers are recognised every year by the Irish Hospice Foundation for their work before Sunflower Days.

I presented 'Sunflower Hero' awards recently to 21 of the hundreds of volunteers across the country that help to raise funds for hospice care each year through initiatives like Sunflower Days.

Three of those heroes, Kay O'Donoghue, Maura Ryan and Noilin Ryan from Nenagh, Co Tipperary have raised €500,000 over the past 15 years for their local hospice.

More than 6,000 people use hospice services every year in Ireland. The care and support afforded to families in need, at a very difficult time, is so important and I am encouraging members of the public to show their support for Sunflower Days once again this year. By simply buying a sunflower from one of our volunteers you are helping to bring comfort and dignity to people at the end-of-life.

There are many patients and their families whose end of life would be so much harder without Sunflower Days and the volunteers who get involved.

I do think that we in this country are blessed with almost like a genetic feeling for volunteering. I think it passes from one generation to the next. An example I sometimes give to people when I talk about it is, a few years ago I was away filming a Christmas edition of Nationwide. We were in Liberia with the Defence Forces.

The Irish contingent shared their campus with other Defence Forces. There was no electricity other than the generator and you couldn't go out at night on your time off. So the other guys in their down time watched DVDs, they went to the gym, they did a run around the circuit.

The Irish had adopted two charities in the capital Monrovia and they volunteered with those two organisations. All of the Irish troops in their down time volunteered for these charities.

One of them was a hospice for the dying which was run by the Missionaries of Charity. They had an amazing but impoverished hospice in Monrovia. The other was an orphanage for children whose parents had been killed in the Civil War in Liberia and they were rebuilding a dormitory for boys.

It just came instinctively. It struck me that no matter where you go in the world, you will find Irish people who are volunteering, who are giving above and beyond. It really is something that we, I suppose, take for granted but it is something that needs to be nurtured and congratulated. I really do applaud everybody for putting energy into rewarding and recognising and celebrating all of the others volunteering for the hospice movement in Ireland and for fundraising for the hospice movement; the wonderful movement that it is.

* Sunflower Days runs this Friday and Saturday (June 10-11). All money raised locally stays locally.

For further information and to volunteer with your local hospice service for Hospice Sunflower Days please visit:

Also see The Irish Hospice Foundation at

Hospice care in numbers


People use hospice services every year in Ireland


People die annually in Ireland


People die every day in Ireland


Two thirds of those who die are aged over 65 years


People affected by each death

1.5 million

The number of Irish people who have had someone close to them die in the last two years


The number of years volunteers have been raising money for hospice care through Sunflower Days


The number of Sunflower pins on sale to raise money for hospice care in your area on June 10th and 11th


Children living with a life-limiting illness


Children die before their 18th birthday every year in Ireland

1 million

The number of euro Sunflower Days hopes to help fund hospice care


The percentage of people who want to be surrounded by loved ones at end of life

Human responses are at the core of hospice care

Orla Keegan is head of Education, Research & Bereavement Services at the Irish Hospice Foundation

The death of a loved one, whether a partner, child or parent, is one of the most challenging life events that a citizen has to deal with. It is also a particularly vulnerable time for the people and families affected.

Traditionally, death was seen as a failure of the health system. However, our contemporary way of thinking is that death is a chance to really make a difference.

Success in care at the end of life is about being proactive and being open for difficult conversations about dying.

It’s about really listening and supporting people. It’s about being sure of what is important to that person and that all opportunities for them to have quiet, peace and a time to say goodbye or to attend to unfinished business is prioritised.

These human responses make up the core of hospice care.

From the very first day I heard about hospice and about palliative care one of the phrases that stuck with me is that ‘a hospice is not a building’.

As Mary Kennedy has highlighted, it is an ethos of care. Its philosophy is summed up by modern hospice founder Dame Cicely Saunders who said, “You matter because you are you and you matter all the days of your life.”

‘Philosophy’ and ‘ethos’ are important because they jealously guard values based on respect, compassion, choice and quality of life. They make sure that the person is at the centre of every decision and that those important to the person are also included.

Values and philosophies need to be converted into actions. There is a whole science of symptom-control behind hospice and palliative care designed to ensure that a person’s physical pain or other symptoms are controlled.

Palliative care utilises the expertise of doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, nutritionists and volunteers to ensure a person has the best quality of life.

These specialists and their expertise are available almost throughout the country and see patients over many months and even years.

Hospice and palliative care is about more than just end-of-life care. In Ireland we have had a palliative care policy since 2001 — we hope it will soon be updated and that progress will be made in ensuring there is sufficient expertise, including hospices in each county. 

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