Janet Street-Porter: A dignified death at home is a human right

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The Independent Online

For once I'm in agreement with Alan Johnson – dying isn't a very sexy subject for news editors. The Health Secretary complained that the media weren't really interested in the plans he announced yesterday which will provide funding to allow a lot more people to die at home.

Well, I'm interested, Mr Johnson, because my sister Pat was one of the many terminally ill NHS patients who spent her final hours in a mixed ward in the unprepossessing confines of Hillingdon Hospital. She would probably have had a better time if I had picked her up from her bed, ripped out the tubes, and deposited her in the nearest Little Chef. At least she might have had some sympathy and attention.

As it turned out, when she entered a coma as she lay dying from lung and brain cancer, I became so enraged that I made a call to the hospital's boss, after which an emergency meeting was convened in a room where cleaning stuff was stored, and a last-minute action plan devised in haste.

Pat was finally loaded on to an ambulance after yet another delay of an hour and taken to a hospice nearby to die later that evening without regaining consciousness. Her family were totally traumatised by the events surrounding her death, for which they have never received an adequate apology.

Pat's story isn't exceptional. After the diary she wrote during her final two weeks was published by this newspaper I received hundreds of emails and letters from people who had experienced the same scenario with their loved ones. Lack of care. Lack of privacy. Lack of dignity.

Two thirds of the 500,000 people who die every year want to do so in their own homes, but only one in five manage to do so. And the care offered to them in their final days, if they are on an NHS ward, will generally be minimal, other than to supply medication and bedpans.

Over the next three years the Government plans to allocate £286m to offer rapid-response nursing teams and support to terminally ill people and their families, enabling them to remain within their own homes or within a hospice for their final days. The scheme is based on that offered by the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity and will also see money allocated to training to ensure that caring for the dying is a core skill for nursing staff.

This week a woman who cared for her elderly parents is going to court to fight their will, which left their entire estate – worth around £2.3m – to the RSPCA. It pains me to say so, but the huge volume of cash left to animal charities in Britain is disgusting. Of course Christine Gill is entitled to a decent share of her parents' wealth, having cared for them for 30 years. But wouldn't it be wonderful if more people planned to leave a big share of their estate to charities like Marie Curie and the woefully under-funded hospice movement?

I would rather ensure that everyone who dies does so with dignity and in the comfort of familiar surroundings. The problem is not going away, and it is unrealistic to expect the hard-pressed NHS to be able to fund it fully.

Time and time again we read of vast sums of money being willed to animal charities, while all over Britain old people lie in hospital beds unvisited, and unfed, slowly dying the most horrible boring death. It is incredible that people care more about the welfare of a dog than their own relatives – but that is demonstrably the case.

Helen, you put me to shame

I have just bought a cross trainer. I've got a big exercise ball, a rack of weights, and some rubber bands that are supposed to tone all sorts of muscles.

But my problem is my lack of willpower, and with the day that I have to put on a swimsuit now less than a month away, I've taken to scanning the internet for one-piece bathing costumes – actually a small tent would be the best solution.

Meanwhile, Dame Helen Mirren flaunts her superb figure wearing a bikini holidaying in Italy. She's older than me – 62 – and looks brilliant.

Mind you, for a million pounds a movie I think I'd be prepared to endure 200 sit-ups a day. Put the woman on that vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square without delay!

* Instead of whingeing about the bonuses paid to BBC bosses, could licence-fee payers start a petition to cheer up Radio 4? The channel offers unmitigated misery from dawn to dusk.

It starts with the Today programme, which offers tales of financial woe every day. Morning serial at the moment is The Gaol – a book about the squalor of Newgate prison, not exactly a barrel of laughs. Then Woman's Hour on dementia and sex.

The morning drama, repeated in the early evening in case you've not had enough misery today, is a true story called What is She Doing Here? about Antigona, a Kosovan refugee now a cleaning lady in north London. Tuesday's episode, read in an insufferably patronising manner by holier-than-thou Fiona Warner, was about dirty knickers and detritus under the marital bed. Ugh!

Then it's time for You and Yours, which is generally moaning about pensions and how to cope on no money. The Archers has been featuring Fallon and Ed who have broken up, so more misery. Please!