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Palliative care: How does it impact someone's life?

Last Updated at May 25th 2021
Many people think that palliative care shortens the life of an individual with a terminal or life limiting illness.

Key points:

  • Palliative care is about maintaining quality of life

  • Having access to services early can help prepare you for what is to come

  • Family and friends are supported through the process too

Older woman receiving palliative care.
A person can start receiving palliative care as soon as they have been diagnosed with a life limiting or terminal illness. [Source: Shutterstock]

However, a person with a terminal illness could be receiving palliative care for a long time before they die, and can have a multitude of benefits to the individual receiving palliative care, and their family and friends.

Kate Reed-Cox, National Clinical Advisor for Palliative Care Australia (PCA), says, "Every person is different, and every situation is different. Some people access palliative care on and off through various stages of an illness."

End of life care is for anyone of any age. A child or baby could start receiving palliative care if they had a life limiting illness, just as an older Australian could have palliative care to assist with cancer, motor neurone disease, dementia, chronic heart failure, end-stage kidney or lung disease, to manage symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Starting early can build relationships

A person can start receiving palliative care as soon as they have been diagnosed with a life limiting or terminal illness. 

It can be important for older Australians in the early stages of a terminal illness to know how to manage any changes over the course of the illness, have time to talk and understand their illness, and for the palliative care team to understand the recipient's values, beliefs and goals for their care.

Accepting palliative care early on can also help an older person come to terms with their terminal illness and create strong connections with their palliative care workers.

Any discussion around palliative care, death or dying can be sensitive and people can react to the conversation differently. Especially if there are personal or cultural beliefs around death and dying.

Aged care staff usually have an understanding of their residents and can help ease a person into receiving palliative care. In most cases, aged care workers have skills and training in some types of palliative care services.

"They can help older people work out what would be right for them, if they were really sick or at the end of their life rather than waiting for a crisis to occur," explains Ms Reed-Cox. 

Palliative care assists family and friends

Family and friends are an intricate part of caring for an older person. Especially when someone has a life limiting disease, it can have a huge impact on the surrounding family. 

Palliative care workers and teams do assist those family and friends in dealing with their older loved one by extending support and advice even after the person dies.

Ms Reed-Cox explains, "Palliative care is about much more than care provided when a person is at the very end of life. 

"When that time does come, palliative care will provide the care and support needed to address pain and symptoms which may be present when a person is approaching death.

"After a person’s death, palliative care can continue to support their families and carers through grief and bereavement."

For example, palliative care can assist with:

  • Assistance for families to come together to talk about sensitive issues

  • Links to other services such as home help and financial support

  • Support for people to meet cultural obligations

  • Support for emotional, social and spiritual concerns

  • Counselling and grief support for the person with the illness and their family and carers

  • Referrals to respite care services

  • Bereavement care to the family and carers once the person has died.

It can prolong life

The assumption that palliative care results in people dying may come from the fact that many older people start receiving the care when they are close to the end of their life.

However, palliative care is actually all about maintaining quality of life. 

The care isn't trying to hasten or postpone death, but is focused on helping the individual live comfortably for the time they have left.

Ms Reed-Cox says, "Depending on a person’s care preferences, some potentially life-prolonging treatments may be refused in favour of an improved quality of life. 

"There can be a misconception when people believe palliative care is limited to pain relief in the final days of a person’s life. Palliative care aims to provide the best quality of life until the person dies."

In most instances, having palliative care early on can provide a person with the ability to control their symptoms more effectively and build a strong therapeutic relationship with their health care team.

What do you want your palliative care experience to be? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

What is palliative care for?
What is an Advance Care Directive?
Counselling

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