Palliative care is a type of medical practice that has grown up over the last 50 or so years. It’s concerned with the care of seriously ill people, where cure is not possible.
It is an approach that focusses on improving the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness. It’s about providing relief from pain and other distressing symptoms.
It is important to know that palliative care affirms life and that dying is considered a normal part of all our lives. It is also important to emphasise that palliative care aims to neither hasten nor postpone death.
The aim is to manage each situation by being careful about identifying and assessing symptoms, whether they are mainly physical, or psychosocial or spiritual. The aim is to find out what matters most and to try to focus on that.
It isn’t just about managing physical things like pain or breathlessness, it integrates the psychological and spiritual aspects of who we are.
It attends to what gives each of our lives meaning and purpose and offers supports to help patients live as actively as possible until their death. It also provides a broad range of professionals who can help the family and important others cope during the patient’s illness and in their own bereavement.
This can’t be done by a doctor or nurse working on their own, it needs a team approach, so a number of different people may be involved at different times.
This may be doctors and nurses but also physiotherapists, occupational therapists, chaplains, pastoral care workers, counsellors and very often volunteers undertaking a wide range of jobs for the family. If needed, most teams will also be able to offer bereavement counselling, if that is needed or wanted.
Many people think palliative care is just for the end of life and the end of hope. This is not the case. We know now that palliative care can actually make a big impact on how long people can live, and live well.
It isn’t just for the end of life either. If someone has a disease or illness that has no cure then it is appropriate to think about involving palliative care teams at an early stage, even while other treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy are going on.
In summary, palliative care isn’t about death – it is about living life right up until the end and making the most of each day that we can.