Frances Sheldon

Pioneer in the specialist care of the dying and bereaved
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The Independent Online

Frances Sheldon was a pioneer in the field of psychosocial palliative care. Her vision and leadership helped to define and develop the role of the social worker in hospice and specialist palliative care, providing psychological and practical support to the dying and bereaved.

Frances Margaret Simmonds, social worker: born Edgware, Middlesex 12 July 1940; Macmillan Lecturer in Psychosocial Palliative Care, then Senior Lecturer, Department of Social Work Studies, Southampton University 1991-2000, Head of Department 1999-2002; married 1963 Michael Sheldon (two sons; marriage dissolved); died Southampton 26 February 2004.

Frances Sheldon was a pioneer in the field of psychosocial palliative care. Her vision and leadership helped to define and develop the role of the social worker in hospice and specialist palliative care, providing psychological and practical support to the dying and bereaved.

Yet her contribution to this field came about almost by accident. After attending St Albans High School and taking a degree in History at Newnham College, Cambridge, she studied Social Administration at the London School of Economics and worked as a social worker, including posts as a probation officer and childcare officer. Her appointment in 1977 as the first (part-time) social worker at the newly established Countess Mountbatten House in Southampton, then only the second NHS palliative-care hospice in Britain, proved to be a turning point.

Countess Mountbatten House (CMH) was committed to providing modern specialist palliative care, not just through provision of beds, but through integrated support for carers and hospital staff as well as patients. The social worker was expected to play a part in building this support network, but there was no clear idea of how she would operate, or how her expertise could be integrated into a programme perceived mainly in terms of patients' medical rather than social needs.

Drawing on her exceptional skills as a communicator, as well as previous experience as a social worker in hospitals in Macclesfield and Newcastle, Sheldon identified and developed her role in helping to ease the mental anguish of those facing death and bereavement, providing emotional, psychological as well as practical help for patients and their families. From 1986 to 1991 she was a teacher and key member of the CMH Education Team, which conducts courses in palliative care for hospice staff, medical students and a wide range of professionals, including GPs, nursing-home staff and carers. Until shortly before her death Sheldon remained involved, as Senior Visiting Fellow, in the work of the education team at the hospice, which won a NHS Beacon award in 2000.

She was an inspiring teacher and in 1991 was appointed Macmillan Lecturer in Psychosocial Palliative Care in the Department of Social Work Studies at Southampton University, later becoming Senior Lecturer and then Head of Department.

At Southampton, Sheldon established the first MSc in Psychosocial and Palliative Care in Britain (now a specialist stream within the MSc in Professional Studies), designed to provide a postgraduate qualification for experienced professionals work Recognising that "psychosocial" aspects are often the most challenging, the course is intended to develop tomorrow's leaders in palliative care by deepening understanding of the psychological, social, spiritual, ethical and legal aspects of the care of those with terminal illnesses and their bereaved families. It has attracted a wide range of professionals, including social workers, nurses, doctors, therapists and clergy.

Sheldon's publications include a key text, Psychosocial Palliative Care: good practice in the care of the dying and bereaved (1997), and chapters in the Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine (1993) and the ABC of Palliative Care (1998), as well as joint articles with medical and academic colleagues. A forthcoming book, Death, Dying and Social Differences, edited by Barbara Monroe and David Oliviere, is dedicated to her memory.

Frances Sheldon helped to found the Association of Hospice Social Workers (later the Association of Hospice and Specialist Palliative Care Social Workers) and was its Chair from 1988 to 1990. She was a founding member of the Bereavement Research Forum and sat on the board of directors of the European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC) for over a decade, giving presentations at several of their conferences as well as in Singapore and Taiwan. She was Macmillan Cancer Relief Social Policy and Social Welfare Adviser from 1999 to 2001, and provided valuable advice on palliative care research to Marie Curie Cancer Care. And she was Vice-Chair of the North and Mid-Hampshire Health Authority in 1996-97, serving as acting Chair from December 1997 to June 1998 at a very difficult time following a damaging report by the Health Service Ombudsman. Her calm wisdom and sensitivity helped to restore morale at a crucial period.

Sheldon was a keen member of the Mountbatten Players, an amateur theatrical group which performs an annual pantomime for patients, staff and friends at the hospice; in 1990 she took part in a spoof "Phantom of the Hospice", in the demanding role of herself - the CMH Social Worker. She was a proud and loving mother and grandmother. She fought a long and brave battle with cancer, and received devoted nursing from her partner, Keith Telford.

She ended her life peacefully at Countess Mountbatten House, which she had served with such dedication for over 25 years.

Maureen Woodhall