Facing a serious, life-limiting illness is a difficult experience for both the person with the illness and for their family and friends. Palliative care is an approach to health care that can help improve quality of life at this challenging time.

The goals of palliative care include:

  • Manage pain and other physical symptoms
  • Provide physical, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual support to patients and their families and caregivers
  • Provide comfort and dignity until the end of life, as well as a dignified and peaceful death
  • Coordinate care provided by a multidisciplinary team
  • Promote open and honest communication
  • Offer support to family caregivers, including bereavement support

If a physician recommends palliative care to you or a loved one, this does not mean they have “given up.” In fact, palliative care is often provided alongside disease therapies (such as chemotherapy for cancer), to help people with advanced illnesses have the best possible quality of life.

These are some common questions about palliative care:

Where does palliative care happen?

Palliative care can take place in different settings, including the patient’s home, residential hospices (home-like facilities for people with a terminal illness), long-term care facilities and hospitals.

Who provides palliative care?

“Many health professionals may be involved in palliative care, depending on the patient’s needs”, says Jodi Marrin, Marketing Manager at Bayshore HealthCare. “Doctors, nurses, specialists, social workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, personal support workers, spiritual counsellors, dietitians, trained volunteers, bereavement support workers and family members could play a role.”

When should we seek palliative care?

Many people associate palliative care with the weeks or months just before death, but it is often beneficial for patients to receive palliative care during earlier stages of an illness, in combination with treatments for their disease. Research has shown that patients who receive early palliative care may experience improvements in mood, coping and quality of life, and it may even help them live longer.

People are often reluctant to talk about illness and death, but it can be helpful for families to learn what options are available – including publicly funded and privately funded services – soon after a diagnosis, so that they can discuss how best to meet their loved one’s wishes. Preparing advance directives also helps people make their wishes known while they’re still well enough to do so.

What’s the difference between palliative care and end-of-life care?

Palliative care can take place even while a person is receiving treatment that could cure their disease. End-of-life care is a part of palliative care that focuses specifically on a person’s needs just before death. It also includes support for family and friends during the grieving process.

To learn more about palliative care, end-of-life care and medical assistance in dying, talk to your physician or social worker. Death and dying are often difficult to talk about, but open and honest communication can support patients’ dignity and comfort, and enable them to have more control over end-of-life decisions.