The goal of palliative care is to help people with serious illnesses feel better. It prevents or treats symptoms and side effects of disease and treatment. Palliative care also treats emotional, social, practical and spiritual problems that illnesses can bring up. When the person feels better in these areas, they have an improved quality of life.
Palliative care can be given at the same time as treatments meant to cure or treat the disease. Palliative care may be given when the illness is diagnosed, throughout treatment, during follow-up, and at the end of life.
Palliative care may be offered for people with illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease, kidney failure, dementia, HIV/AIDS, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), etc. While receiving palliative care, people can remain under the care of their regular provider and still receive treatment for their disease.
Who gives palliative care?
Any health care provider can give palliative care. But some providers specialize in it. Palliative care may be given by:
- A team of doctors
- Nurses and nurse practitioners
- Physician assistants
- Registered dietitians
- Social workers
- Massage therapists
Palliative care may be offered by hospitals, home care agencies, cancer centers and long-term care facilities.
The difference between palliative care and hospice
Both palliative care and hospice care provide comfort. But palliative care can begin at diagnosis, and at the same time as treatment. Hospice care begins after treatment of the disease is stopped and when it is clear that the person is not going to survive the illness.
Hospice care is most often offered only when the person is expected to live 6 months or less.
What does palliative care include?
A serious illness affects more than just the body. It touches all areas of a person’s life, as well as lives of that person’s family members. Palliative care can address these effects of a person’s illness.
Physical problems. Symptoms or side effects include:
- Loss of appetite, and feeling sick to the stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble sleeping
Treatments may include:
- Integrative therapies
- Nutritional guidance
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
Emotional, social and coping problems. Patients and their families face stress during illness that can lead to fear, anxiety, hopelessness or depression. Family members may take on caregiving, even if they also have jobs and other duties.
Treatments may include:
- Family meetings
- Referrals to mental health providers
- Support groups
Practical problems. Some of the problems brought on by illness are practical, such as money- or job-related problems, insurance questions and legal issues. A palliative care team may:
- Explain complex medical forms or help families understand treatment choices
- Provide or refer families to financial counseling
- Help connect you to resources for transportation or housing
Spiritual issues. When people are challenged by illness, they may look for meaning or question their faith. A palliative care team may help patients and families explore their beliefs and values so they can move toward acceptance and peace.
Tell your provider what bothers and concerns you most, and what issues are most important to you. Give your provider a copy of your living will or health care proxy.
Ask your provider what palliative care services are available to you. Palliative care is almost always covered by health insurance, including Medicare or Medicaid. If you do not have health insurance, talk to a social worker or the hospital’s financial counselor.
Learn about your choices. Read about advance directives.
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