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What is palliative care and why is it important?

Tuesday 10 October 2017

An older woman sits in a wheelchair, smiling at a female nurse who stands behind her.>
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Palliative care is available for everyone, regardless of age, culture, beliefs, background or where they live.

Palliative care is increasingly a topic of discussion and concern for Queenslanders, but not everyone knows what it is or when it would be accessed. What do you know about palliative care?

Why do we have palliative care?

Despite advances in modern medicine, sometimes medical conditions cannot be fixed. Death and dying are inevitable parts of life and are a uniquely personal experience. No two end of life situations are the same.

If a person has a life-limiting condition, which means that it cannot be cured and will lead to the end of their life, the focus of their care will shift from aiming to cure them, to ensuring they have the best quality of life. This care can focus on:

  • controlling their symptoms
  • independence
  • emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing
  • planning for the future
  • and caring for their family and carers.

Palliative care is not just for the very last days of life. Depending on their circumstances, a person may access palliative care for several years, months, weeks or days. Palliative care might take place in a person’s own home, a residential aged care facility, a hospice, or at a hospital. It is available for everyone regardless of age, culture, background, beliefs or where you live.

What is palliative care?

Some people with a life-limiting condition may receive specialised healthcare called palliative care. Palliative care provides support to people at any age who are experiencing severe or complex symptoms due to a life-limiting or terminal condition.

Palliative care aims to improve and sustain quality of life for the patient and their loved ones and enable them to live as actively as possible until their death.

Specialist palliative care staff are trained with specific skills and knowledge to help you, your family and carers. Palliative care staff have expertise in symptom management, emotional, spiritual, practical and cultural care.

People who may provide care at the end of life include:

  • doctors, including general practitioners, palliative care specialists and other specialist doctors
  • nurses, including general and specialised nurses in the community, hospitals, palliative care units, residential aged care facilities and hospices
  • allied health professionals, including social workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, pharmacists, dietitians, speech pathologists and leisure therapists
  • family members and informal carers
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers
  • support workers, such as assistants in nursing, personal care attendants and diversional therapists
  • pastoral carers/chaplains from different religious, spiritual and cultural backgrounds
  • volunteers.

What type of care is given?

Palliative care is delivered when a person is known to be approaching the end of their life, usually because of a life-limiting condition. Common medication conditions of people who access palliative care include:

  • cancer
  • dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
  • advanced lung, heart, kidney or liver disease
  • stroke and other neurological diseases, including motor neurone disease and multiple sclerosis
  • Huntington’s disease
  • muscular dystrophy
  • HIV/AIDs
  • And other degenerative or deteriorating conditions relating to aging.

Palliative care allows for planning to ensure the patient and their family experiences the best quality of life and support possible throughout the dying process.

Palliative care can involve pain management, symptom management (such as managing a nausea or lack of appetite), and support of emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing.

Palliative care takes into account the wishes of the person about the type of medical care they want to receive, their living environment and cultural or spiritual practices that are important to them. This can benefit the patient and also be a comfort to the patient’s loved ones.

Palliative care does not try to delay death or bring it on more quickly.

A family and nurse gather around the bed of an older man, having laid a bright, colourful quilt over his legs.

Who will access palliative care?

Palliative care is for people with complex or severe symptoms related to a progressive, advanced, life-limiting condition. Not everyone who dies will access palliative care. People who pass away quickly due to serious injury or illness may not require or be able to access palliative care. Some people may choose not to access palliative care, or it may not be appropriate for them.

Over 65,000 Australians are hospitalised to access palliative care every year, with many more receiving palliative care in aged care homes. 1 in every 1,000 GP visits in Australia is related to palliative care.

Why is palliative care important?

Whether you are young or old, sick or well—the one thing we all have in common is that dying will be part of our lives. For those with a serious, life-limiting condition, palliative care can make it a more positive experience. Palliative care can enable people to be comfortable at the end of their lives and ease their concerns and that of their families, allowing them to enjoy their time together.

Palliative care can also support medical professionals as their patients transition from receiving treatment that aims for a cure, to care that seeks the best quality of life and symptom management.

Last updated: 18 October 2017