Seeing the whole human being

Death happens to us all. It’s a healthy part of being on the planet, says Tony Paine, Chief Executive of Mary Potter Hospice.

Tony Paine, Chief Executive of Mary Potter Hospice. Photo: Michael Fitzsimons

WelCom May 2024

Death happens to us all. It’s a healthy part of being on the planet, says Tony Paine, Chief Executive of Mary Potter Hospice.

Michael Fitzsimons

The things you need to live well are the same as the things you need to die well, says Tony Paine.

‘What do you need to have a good life? You need connection, you need a sense of meaning and purpose, you need to have people in your world you are close to. You need to be physically comfortable. You need some fun. Those are exactly the same things you need at the end of your life, perhaps more so.

‘That’s why we say hospice care and palliative care is as much about life and living as it is about a peaceful death. People think the hospice as a building where people go to die. But, strange to say, nothing could be further from the truth. We’re as much focused on life as on death.’

Tony has been Chief Executive for two years. Mary Potter Hospice provides specialist palliative care to the people of Wellington, Porirua and Kāpiti Coast – a population of 350,000. In any given year, ‘about 25 per cent of the people who die in the region come through our service,’ says Tony. 

The service is increasingly being delivered in the community, supporting around 800 patients a year, predominantly in their own homes. This is backed up by an in-patient unit in Newtown, which provides specialised support, particularly medical and nursing support to manage symptoms. 

The heart of palliative care involves seeing a person in this last stage of their lives as a whole human being, says Tony. 

‘Almost all of the people who come into our care have had long journeys dealing with some form of cancer or chronic illness that’s limiting their life. A long illness and involvement with the health system diminishes your world, not just physically as your body starts to let you down, but in terms of how much you can do and how much control you have over your own life. You quickly become seen as a set of symptoms rather than a human being.

‘Our desire is that when you come to us, at this very special and profound and sacred time in your life, we see you as a whole human being, connected to other human beings. So we are concerned with your physical symptoms and the relief of pain as much as we can but we also think about all the other dimensions of your life – emotional, spiritual, cultural and practical.’

To help meet these needs, Mary Potter Hospice has a multi-disciplinary team of doctors, nurses, counsellors, occupational therapists, social workers and cultural liaison staff, about 170 staff in all. It also has around 500 volunteers who are a very important part of the hospice workforce.

‘Some of the volunteers are patient-facing,’ says Tony. ‘They serve meals, they are companions, they may help you write your biography if that’s important to you. They bring flowers. It’s all part of seeing you as a whole person.’

Tony says the other key thing that lies at the heart of palliative care is finding out what matters most to the individual and responding to that. For some people it’s helping relieve physical pain but it doesn’t end there.

‘Palliative care is very relational, getting to know you and what’s important to you and gives you meaning and joy. What’s important to you is what matters most.’ 

Most of the care that people get as they are dying comes from their family, friends and loved ones. But the hospice still has an important role to walk alongside people and focus on the things that are important to them, whatever they may be. 

‘It may be an ice-cream on a beach, it may be arranging for them to have time with the kids or grandkids, it may be reconnecting with a marae. It may be just sitting with people so they are not alone.’

Mary Potter Hospice is 60 per cent funded by government and the rest comes from fundraising, donations and the Mary Potter Hospice shops. 

Like other parts of the health sector, the palliative care sector is under increasing financial pressure. There is an under-investment by government in palliative care in New Zealand, says Tony.

‘Hospice care is delivered by 26 small to medium charities and none of them are saying they are in a good place financially in the face of rising cost pressures.’

Future scenarios are challenging. New Zealand has an ageing population and people are dying older and later in their lives, which will put pressure on the whole health system, including on the need for palliative care.

‘A larger cohort of older people presents challenges for our finances, our buildings, our staffing. The same goes for all hospices. The impact is going to be quite profound. That’s a problem for New Zealand.’ 

The Mary Potter Hospice has been going for around 40 years and was established by the Little Company of Mary Sisters. The last of their Sisters in Wellington, Sr Margaret Lancaster, has just retired from the Board to return to Australia. The Little Company of Mary was founded by Englishwoman Mary Potter to care for the sick and the dying. The order’s charism and values still lie at the heart of the way the hospice operates.

‘The values they brought to us are in our DNA.’

Those values have partly informed the Hospice’s position on assisted dying. It’s one of the fundamental tenets of palliative care ‘that we seek neither to shorten nor prolong life,’ says Tony.

‘Death is part of life and we make that journey go as well as possible. But the idea that we can make that journey happen more quickly, or that we can prolong it, is anathema to us.’

Having said that, Tony says that the hospice will support people, whether they choose assisted dying or not. Assisted dying does not happen in the in-patient unit and hospice staff are not actively involved.

‘So we’re just not part of it, but we will support a person who chooses assisted dying and we will provide their family with bereavement support.’

Tony has worked in the charitable sector all his life and says the values and spirituality of the hospice make it a special place to work.

‘One of the joys of working here is we get to talk about values all the time. It’s fantastic, a job where you can talk about love. I think everyone here makes a very active choice to be part of the Mary Potter Hospice. 

‘It’s a beautiful place to work but it’s also a challenging place to work.’

Mary Potter Hospice Street Appeal – volunteers are needed to help collect funds around Wellington, Porirua and Kāpiti for the Mary Potter Hospice’s Steet Appeal on 16 and 18 May. Please visit or contact Phillip at to sign up.