2021 Blog Post

Understanding Palliative Care

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By VHA
Woman and man sitting on couch

The term ‘palliative care’ is often misunderstood and as a result of this many clients recently diagnosed with a progressive, life-limiting illness miss out on the early benefits of this specialized support. Although palliative care does include end-of-life care, it is so much more. You can receive palliative care at any stage of illness and in all care settings. It can help to manage symptoms, reduce suffering and maximize quality of life. In fact, the earlier you or a loved one receive palliative care the better, to help you and your family manage the many challenges of illness and disease.

What is Palliative Care?

Palliative care is for anyone living with a life-altering or progressive illness such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), kidney disease and many others. It’s recommended that this specialized care begin immediately after diagnosis for people who may make a full recovery as well as those with chronic or terminal conditions. Separate from clinical care that is focused on treating the illness itself, the goal of palliative care is to relieve suffering and improve quality of life. This includes pain relief, symptom management and reducing the psychological impacts of a life-limiting disease on patients/clients and their families.

Palliative care is provided by specialized doctors, nurses, social workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and trained volunteers, among others, that work collaboratively and with your primary care team.

How Does it Help?

When people are living with a life-limiting or progressive disease, they may experience physical or psychological symptoms from the illness itself and also from the required treatment. For example, chemotherapy often causes nausea and vomiting. For others, the narcotics used to control pain can lead to constipation, and many people find that navigating a difficult diagnosis can create severe anxiety. Palliative care is based on individual needs and is very different from one person to the next, but it can alleviate these symptoms and many others including pain, depression, stress, shortness of breath, chronic fatigue and insomnia.

Other palliative services that may improve the quality of life for patients/clients, loved ones and caregivers include home and personal care, grief and bereavement support, and assistance to better understand the illness, explore treatment options and make difficult decisions.

What is End-of-Life Care?

End-of-life care is a type of palliative care typically used when someone has a life expectancy of six months or less. Care is focused on a patient’s comfort and quality of life when an illness is no longer responding to treatment or someone has chosen to stop certain interventions.  

Because palliative care and end-of-life care are mistakenly thought to be the same thing, many patients/clients and families are resistant to talking about palliative care entirely and some physicians are even reluctant to make a referral before an illness becomes terminal.

Can You Receive Palliative Care at Home?

Palliative care can be offered at home, in hospice, a long-term care residence or hospital. But for many people, remaining comfortable at home is the first choice, especially when approaching the end stages of life. Although it will depend on the level of medical assistance required and individual circumstances, this is possible in Ontario with palliative care support teams of nurses, home care workers, doctors and family/friends. 

You or a loved one may qualify for government-funded palliative care, or certain equipment and supplies, through Home and Community Care Support Services. They will assess you or your loved one’s condition and determine what is available for your specific situation. Depending on your circumstances, they may also suggest additional funding options through other government or non-profit programs.

You can find more information on palliative care and palliative care resources at https://www.vha.ca/palliative/