Understanding Palliative Care: What You Need to Know

If you are the adult child of an older parent who may not be in the best of health, you undoubtedly wonder what resources and practices will improve the overall sense of wellbeing of your mother or father. Palliative care may be an option for your parent, depending on the specific facts and circumstances at hand. If you are like many people, you may not have a full and complete understanding of what is meant by palliative care. 

Like many people, you may associate palliative care with a hospice setting. Yes, palliative care is a part of care provided by hospice. But palliative care is much more than that and is utilized in a broader array of settings and circumstances. Through this article we provide you with essential information to aid you in better understanding what palliative care is all about.

Overview of Palliative Care

Palliative care is a specialized type of medical care that focuses on two primary objectives, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  1. Providing patients relief from pain
  2. Providing patients relief from other symptoms of serious illness

Palliative care can be utilized no matter the diagnosis of a patient or the stage of disease. In other words, palliative care is not just for end of life situations. The ultimate goal of palliative care is to improve the quality of life for patients and their families. This care is provided alongside curative treatments. As many people already are aware, it is also available in a hospice setting when curative treatments are no longer being utilized. 

Who Provides Palliative Care?

Palliative care is provided to patients and their families by a team that includes nurses, doctors, and other specially trained professionals. The other specially trained professionals can include individuals beyond the medical community as needed. For example, if a person in need of palliative care is part of a religious organization, a clergy person could be included in a palliative care team more broadly constituted to provide emotional and spiritual support. 

Symptoms Addressed by Palliative Care

If you are also like most people, you connect palliative care with assisting a patient in managing pain. Palliative care most definitely is utilized to address a patient’s pain and improve quality of life. In addition, palliative care is designed to address other symptoms associated with illness or disease that include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression or sadness
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Anorexia
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping

Type of Conditions Addressed With Palliative Care

There are certain medical conditions that more often suggest the use of palliative care. According to the Mayo Clinic, medical conditions that more commonly benefit from palliative care include:

  • Cancer
  • Blood and bone marrow disorders requiring stem cell transplant
  • Heart disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Dementia
  • End-stage liver disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Lung disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Stroke

Do bear in mind that this is not an all-encompassing list. There are other types of illnesses, diseases, and conditions that warrant palliative care as well.

Developing a Palliative Care Plan

A specific palliative care plan is designed for each individual patient. A one size fits all template is not used when it comes to palliative care because an individual patient has unique needs.

A palliative care plan does have different elements which oftentimes include:

Symptom management: A palliative care plan will include steps to address a patient’s symptoms and improve comfort and general well-being. 

Support and advice: Palliative care services include support and assistance for many difficult situations and decisions faced by patients and families during a serious illness or approaching the end of life. You and your family may talk with a palliative care social worker, chaplain or other team member about stress, spiritual questions, financial concerns or how your family will cope if a loved one dies. The palliative care specialists may offer guidance or connect you with community resources of different types. 

Care techniques that improve comfort and well-being: These care techniques may include breathing techniques, healing touch, visualization or simply listening to music. Care techniques are unique to the patient and family in need of palliative care.

Referrals: A palliative care clinician may make referrals to other doctors. These can include specialists in psychiatry, pain medicine, or integrative medicine, depending on patient needs.

Advance care planning: Depending on the circumstances surrounding the need for palliative care and the desires of a patient, a palliative care team can provide resources to develop a living will, advance directive, and a health care power of attorney.

In the final analysis, palliative care provides a holistic approach to enhancing the comfort and wellbeing of a person facing a challenging medical condition as well as for an individual approaching his or her end of life. Additionally, palliative care takes into consideration the need to enhance the wellbeing of family members of a patient as well.