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If You Don’t Know What Palliative Care Is, You Should

Last updated on February 15, 2022

Haven't heard the term palliative care before? You aren't alone.

Palliative care (pal-lee-uh-tiv) is a recognized medical specialty focused on relieving both the symptoms and the stress that accompanies serious illness by treating the whole patient and not just the sick part.

The World Health Organization defined palliative care in 2002 as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”

That definition has been broadened to include care for anyone, of any age, at any stage of serious illness regardless if the condition is life-threatening.

By 2006, the American Board of Medical Specialties recognized it as a medical specialty with palliative care providers treating patients and family members throughout medical treatment. Palliative doctors do not replace medical specialists; rather, they provide an additional layer of help and support.

Lead by the palliative doctor, a team often includes primary doctors, specialists, nurses, social workers, along with spiritual leaders, volunteers and family members.

Patient Wishes and Comfort Central to Care

The wishes of a patient are always focal in the treatment plan in consultation with medical specialists.

The medical care team concentrates on treating your loved one's disease or condition. The palliative team focuses on improving your loved one's quality of life, alleviating suffering and helping you and your loved one cope with the burden of illness. They will:

  • Guide your loved one through the complex medical maze of decisions that need to be made
  • Prescribe treatments to control pain and provide comfort
  • Coordinate care with what often seems like a sea of medical professionals
  • Help draft living wills and other documents based on your loved one’s needs and goals
  • Provide emotional and spiritual (if requested) support and guidance

The emergence of palliative care, which sprung from the concerns of cancer patients in the 1960s and 1970s, is increasingly important as we are living well past 65.

“If more people live to older ages, and if chronic diseases become more common with age, then the numbers of people in a population living with their effects will increase,’’ the WHO said in its publication Palliative Care: The Solid Facts. “This means that there will be more people needing some form of help towards the end of life.”

Palliative Care May Increase Survival Odds

There is some evidence that indicates palliative care may speed recovery by relieving symptom -- like pain, loss of appetite and anxiety -- as difficult medical treatments are administered, according to the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

The World Health Organization also suggests that palliative care is “most effective" at the beginning of the illness and also “reduces unnecessary hospitalizations and use of health-care services.”

According to research from the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, people often live longer when they receive palliative care along with other treatments that are targeted at their illness.

How a Professional Palliative Caregiver Can Supplement Palliative Care

Superior home care agencies offer programs designed to supplement loved ones receiving palliative care. The goal of a professional palliative caregiver is to enrich the quality of life for all care recipients through specialized, non-medical care and assistance.

A professional palliative caregiver possesses a much different set of skills than your medical team. So while you're loved one may be receiving exceptional medical care, it's vital to ensure they're just as comfortable in their day-to-day lives as before the illness or injury.

Professional palliative caregivers provide that warmth and interpersonal connection that sometimes doesn't happen with medical professionals. And it can make life easier for your loved one and your entire family.

For more information on how home care services can supplement your loved one’s palliative care, click here (links to new transitioning to palliative care article).

Possible Box to pair with the story:

Expect your palliative care team to ask your loved one a series of questions so they can craft a plan tailored to your loved one’s unique needs and wishes. It’s a great idea to start thinking through these before meeting with your team.

Just remember: The questions, just like the plan, will change as the illness does.

According to the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, some of those questions may include:

  • What makes you happy?
  • Tell us about your hopes for you and your family?
  • How can we help you live well?
  • What is important to you?
  • What needs and services do you wish to discuss?
  • Are there activities or events you are looking forward to?
  • What keeps you moving forward in challenging times?
  • What are your fears or worries about your illness or medical care?
  • What activities do you want to continue?
  • How can we help you live more comfortably and more energetically?


If you're interested in our compassionate home care services for you or a loved one, contact your nearest Visiting Angels home care agency today or call 800-365-4189.
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