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Story | Research
12 December 2019

Elderly must not be ‘pushed to the margins’, inter-faith palliative care symposium told


Vatican City conference organized by WISH and the Pontifical Academy for Life

Global health leaders and communities must foster a “culture of care” rather than a “community of neglect” when it comes to the treatment of the elderly, and palliative care needs to be at the forefront in relieving the suffering of older members of society during their final days.

That was the message delivered by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL) – speaking during the first day of the Religion and Medical Ethics: Palliative Care and the Mental Health of the Elderly symposium, in Vatican City – as he said the elderly can no longer be “pushed to the margins of society”.

Organized by the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), an initiative of Qatar Foundation, and PAL, the Rome symposium aims to tackle the treatment of patients facing life-threatening illness and death, with a focus on inter-faith dialogue and addressing the challenges and barriers facing palliative care across the globe.

Archbishop Paglia said the world is in urgent need for a “palliative care movement”, saying: “Together with all religions, we have to improve knowledge in the application of palliative care.

"There is a great deal of ignorance about palliative care, and we run the risk of abandonment. We do not want a culture of abandonment; we want a culture of accompaniment and a culture of love. In my opinion, all people of all religions are in agreement with this."

Archbishop Paglia praised WISH for co-organizing the symposium, saying the issue of palliative care has never been more pressing than it is at present. "The themes reflected in this congress - palliative care and mental health in old age - are two important areas, not only for healthcare, but also for the future of our societies,” he said in his opening speech.

“All too often, terminally-ill patients and the elderly - especially those affected by mental illness - are pushed to the margins of the society and it is believed they have nothing more to offer, or that they are a burden. The Pontifical Academy for Life is committed to promoting a culture of palliative care, not only within the community of believers but everywhere in the world.”

Archbishop Paglia said the Vatican City symposium has followed a productive previous meeting in Doha to reflect on themes related to euthanasia, assisted suicide, and the promotion of palliative care in “the two great traditions; the Islamic tradition and the Christian tradition”. And he emphasized that inter-faith and inter-religion discussions are critical to ensuring the compassion and dignity of every person in the final stages of life, saying: “I believe you have to have strong [inter-faith] friendships, because that allows us to better understand not only our traditions, but also our future together.

“Palliative care is a human right and this awareness is gradually spreading, but the true human right is the right to be recognized and accepted as a member of society, as part of the one and only human family. We must rediscover this.”

According to Archbishop Paglia, palliative care not only provides support from a medical standpoint, but also from a human and cultural perspective. “The goal of healing is fundamental in today’s medicine,” he explained. “This means that when you can no longer heal, medicine believes it has failed.

“However, medicine can always treat even when it cannot heal. This is one of the pillars we must highlight.”

And he said the medical community must recognize that stopping a patient’s treatment when it can no longer help does not equate to abandonment. “It is not true that there is nothing more to do, because presence and accompaniment are also important,” he said. “Holding a patient’s hand and offering to talk is important. We must always help to weaken suffering by offering love.

“It is fundamental to rediscover the culture of accompaniment till the time of death. That is why a correct practice of palliative care and pain therapy can also help governments spend less and invent new processes to develop new medical care. 

"Pediatric palliative care must also be more focused because it is a dimension which requires the utmost commitment. And then there is the issue of the mental health of the elderly - living longer also involves an increase of serious diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease and dementia. 

"Weakness is often seen as a form of guilt. We must change this perspective, and promote acts of solidarity and love in times of weakness. Palliative care as a tool is very effective not only in medical terms, but also in terms of global humanism.”

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