Palliative Care: Providing Comfort to the Seriously Ill

Palliative Care

Palliative (or “comfort”) care can be life-altering for someone with a serious illness. By helping them to manage pain and ease anxieties, care teams help patients live each day to the fullest.

Being diagnosed with a serious disease understandably leads to fear, confusion and anxiety. The doctor may recommend palliative care, a term that can be confusing. What is palliative care, anyway? Isn’t it the same as hospice care? Isn’t hospice care for people who are in the final stages of life?

Difference between palliative and hospice care

There is a difference between hospice and palliative care (also known as “comfort care”). Hospice care is for people who have six months or less to live. Comfort care, on the other hand, is for anyone in any stage of a chronic illness, perhaps someone being treated for cancer, AIDS or Alzheimer’s. It does not cure a disease, but eases the symptoms of an illness and also addresses spiritual and financial concerns. In addition, it helps patients and their families understand the illness and the treatment options. Overall, it allows patients to live each day to its fullest and to be as independent and comfortable as they can.

Who should receive palliative care?

Palliative care is an option for those with a chronic or advanced illness who:

  • Feel hopeless or depressed
  • Are in pain
  • Aren’t ready yet for hospice care
  • Have medical costs that are creating financial hardship
  • Are having difficulty managing their illnesses
  • Are having problems with anxiety, delirium, constipation, nausea, etc.
  • Are having disagreements with family members about treatment of their illnesses
  • Are not improving after a stroke or heart attack
  • Have had to be repeatedly hospitalized

The palliative care team

The care team is made up of various individuals.

  • Physician. The doctor directs the patient’s care, using input from the palliative care team.
  • Pharmacist. The pharmacist specializes in pain management, proper dosing and drug interactions.
  • Registered nurse. The nurse has special training in managing the symptoms of an advanced illness.
  • Spiritual counselor. Provides spiritual guidance that respects each patient’s religious beliefs.
  • Social worker. Helps find community resources that are available to the patient. Also addresses emotional concerns.
  • Therapists. Occupational, physical, music and art therapy can all be part of a patient’s care.

Goals of palliative care

Palliative care improves the quality of life of a seriously ill person and supports the patient and family after treatment ends. Comfort care focuses on the whole person, not just the disease, striving to provide the patient with the highest possible quality of life. Mental and spiritual needs are also addressed. The focus is not on death, but on providing quality care for the living.

Care does not need to interfere with other treatments. Many patients receive comfort care along with life-prolonging therapies like chemotherapy and radiation. Patients do not need to be hospitalized or live in a nursing home. They can still be in their homes, living productive lives, while receiving care.

Comfort care affirms life and treats dying as a normal process. It helps patients live as actively as possible, and helps families cope with illness and bereavement.

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