The spirit of community engagement permeated the conference.
Helping the organisers put the final touches on the main plenary hall, I was reminded of the African philosophy of Ubuntu, encapsulated in the Zulu saying: ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ or ‘a person is a person through other people.’
This philosophy is grounded in the fundamental and intimate entanglement of all people in the world. It recognises not only the connectedness of all the people in the world today, but also the threads of connection stretching back in time to all our ancestors, as well as forwards in time to touch all our descendents and the descendants of those we know.
Floral arrangements incorporating huge springs of hazel, a tree sacred in ancient Ireland, flanked the speakers’ podium, with smaller versions decorating each table, linking the tables in the room to each other and to the podium, and offering a gentle reminder of the rich spiritual heritage of the place in which we all came together.
The gifts for speakers were wooden bowls, crafted by ex-offenders as part of the PALLS project, from the wood of a two hundred year old oak tree that, until its own death, had stood in the grounds of Milford Care Centre.
This choice demonstrated once again the links between the care centre, the international conference delegates and the local Limerick community.
The sense of connectedness was continued by the keynote speeches of the morning.
Professor Luc Deliens, of the Ghent Research centre in Belgium, provided an introduction to a public health perspective of end-of-life care and palliative care, calling for social scientific research into the field.
Professor Cillian Twoney, presenting on Hospice Principles in Hospital Settings, introduced the organization: Hospice friendly Hospitals, and reminded the delegates of the importance of fostering an environment of comfort and respect in a place where people may spend their last hours.
Dr Bruce Rumbold spoke on the social experience of death, and the interplay between agency and structure and between the informal social management of dying and the formal networks of care that may restrain the community’s ability to provide this social support.
Dr Suresh Kumar and Mr Paul Kronin presented two successful experiences of community engagement, in Kerala, India and the UK West Midlands respectively. Both speakers emphasized the vital importance of facilitating a community-led approach, rather than an attempt at over-management at the expense of commitment and community ownership.
Delegates had the chance to network with each other, as well as engaging with the speakers after the presentations.