Dignity Therapy, Keith Fagg

Former Mayor of Geelong and Director of Fagg’s Mitre 10, Keith Fagg, tells us about his voluntary work with “Dignity Therapy” for patients in palliative care.


‘Becoming the Mayor of Geelong was not on my bucket list but I thought it would be a way of serving our community. I met a lot of great people in that role. I like to delegate and encourage others to get on with what it is they are doing. I think it is important to let the people with the knowledge and passion to continue doing their work.

We have a unique community in Geelong. It has a different feeling from a major metropolitan city, particularly for people who move here. While I was with the Council I admired seeing the many community groups working with great passion. There is the strength of ‘Give Where You Live’ and G21. Geelong has 13 Rotary groups, over 10 Lions Clubs, not to mention all the sporting groups and interest groups.

These days I volunteer with a number of organisations but I would like to tell you about my role with the Barwon Health Palliative care “Dignity Therapy” program. This was initially developed by a psychiatrist by the name of Harvey Chochinov, in Canada. Perth was one of the initial research sites. Geelong was the first place to implement it with the use of volunteers so ours is a world-leading model. It has been running for two and a half years. The volunteers are all highly skilled and undergo a 3 day training course. We have about 11 who gather stories and 4 or 5 transcribers. This is the area that we could do with a bit more help in.

‘“Dignity Therapy” is where we document highlights of the life of someone who has a life limiting illness. There is a ten question interview template where we ask them about their values, what they are proud of, when they felt the most alive and if they have any messages for loved ones. It’s not a full life story as such but more about who they are.

We then transcribe and edit what the person has said. There is a “no harm” aspect where we are careful about what remains in print. We might hear some things that are best said but not written and this is all part of the therapy aspect of the program. At all times, the person is in charge of what is finally recorded and we always try to maintain their ‘voice’.

It is when we read the transcription back to the patient that is the most powerful part of the process. It is someone validating them, giving them a chance to say what they want to say. The final document goes to whoever the person wants, usually the family and includes pictures provided by the family.

One patient I worked with said to her family “this is my gift to you”. She died peacefully two days later. Sometimes the patient asks for the document to be given after they have passed away.

It is a great privilege to be part of this team of volunteers, working with people and families at a critical moment in their lives.’ If you are interested in finding out more about “Dignity Therapy” contact the program’s coordinator Russell Armstrong at @Barwon Health on (03) 4215 5700.

Photo: Phil Hines Photography