What Is Palliative Care?

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What is palliative care?

Palliative care is a specialized form of health care that helps those with a progressive life-limiting illness to live their lives the best way possible.

It seeks to optimize quality of life, alleviate pain, and reduce symptoms.

Its goal is to provide comfort and dignity for the person living with the illness, and for their families.

When should someone access palliative care?

Although palliative care is usually associated with people who are actively dying, it is also for people with progressive life-limiting illnesses such as lung, kidney and heart disease.

People who may have many months or even years left to live can benefit from palliative care by having their symptoms and concerns looked after during all phases of their illness.

Further, it can assist people as they plan for treatment or consider where they want to be cared for if they can’t be at home.

For more information on when to access palliative care, visit Alberta Health Services' Palliative Care: Is It Right For Me?

Why is palliative care important?

Palliative and end-of-life care helps to improve the quality of life for children and adults with a life-limiting or incurable progressive illness and improves care and services that meet their needs.

This is done by providing emotional, spiritual and physical support in many different settings, including the home, hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and outpatient clinics.

In addition, palliative and end-of-life care offers help to families and caregivers, by providing information about what to expect in the last months or hours of life.

Support also includes care planning, grief and bereavement support groups and workshops for caregivers and families.

Who provides palliative care?

Care is usually provided by your family doctor and community health care providers such as home care programs. Care is available in a hospital or at your home.

Home care providers coordinate the care they deliver with physicians, who provide advice on the kinds of care required.

Palliative and end-of-life care services are also available through health care teams in continuing care centres and hospices.

I think I or someone I know might need palliative care. What should I do?

If you’re thinking about palliative and end-of-life care, don't wait for your doctor or family members to bring it up.

Talk to your family and health care team in an open and honest way.

Deciding on your wishes and sharing them can help ease your mind and make your final days more peaceful.

Here are the steps to take:

Write down any questions you have about ​palliative and end-of-lif​e care. Ask your doctor to ​go over options with you and explain the risks and benefits of each.

Think about the kinds of treatment you do or do not want and discuss them with your doctor. Your answers will help give everyone a clear idea of your care wishes.

Talk to your family and tell them what you want. You can also write down your wishes so that everyone will know them in case, later on, you can’t speak for yourself. This process is called advance care planning.

Tell your family and doctor what you decide so they can help carry out your wishes.

To find services in your area, visit Alberta Health Services' Palliative and End of Life Care page.

Palliative care FAQs

Palliative care can be provided at any time, not just in the last days of life.

It is available for people once they are diagnosed with an advanced illness – even if death is many years away.

Palliative and end-of-life care is for anyone with a serious chronic or life-limiting illness. This includes kidney, liver and lung disease, heart failure, dementia and other neurological illnesses and certain conditions among children.

Hospice care is one type of palliative care. Palliative care can be delivered in a hospice setting, in hospital or in a person’s home.

Additional resources

Alberta resources

Alberta Health Services | "Information for Patients & Families regarding Palliative and End of Life Care"

Alberta Hospice Palliative Care Association | "AHPCA is a charitable organization that serves as the voice for hospice and palliative care in Alberta."

MyHealth Alberta | "Health Information and Tools regarding Palliative and End-of-Life Care."

National resources

BC Centre for Palliative Care | "BC Centre for Palliative Care is a provincial non-profit organization established by the Ministry of Health to accelerate improvement in palliative care in British Columbia."

Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association (CHPCA) | "The CHPCA is the national voice for Hospice Palliative Care in Canada."

Canadian Virtual Hospice | "The Canadian Virtual Hospice provides support and personalized information about advanced illness, palliative care, loss and grief, to people living with illness, family members, people working in healthcare, educators, and researchers."

Health Canada | "Learn about palliative care. Find out how it can help improve your quality of life if you are living with a life-threatening or serious illness."

Palliative Care Matters | "Sooner or later, most Canadians will need palliative care for themselves or someone they love. The problem is that finding this care is not a sure thing in Canada. We don’t have a national strategy and not all Canadians can access the care they need for themselves or their loved ones."

Pallium Canada | "A national, non-profit organization focused on building professional and community capacity to help improve the quality and accessibility of palliative care in Canada."

International resources

All-Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care (AIIHPC) | "If you would like to find out more about Palliative Care, visit The Palliative Hub. The Palliative Hub provides a gateway to information and resources about palliative care on the island of Ireland, under the following components: Adult, Children and Young People, Carers, Professional and Learning."

Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) | "The Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the availability of quality health care for people facing serious illness." Also features a useful blog.

European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC) | "The EAPC brings together many voices to forge a vision of excellence in palliative care that meets the needs of patients and their families. It strives to develop and promote palliative care in Europe through information, education and research using multi-professional collaboration while engaging with stakeholders at all levels." Also features a useful blog.

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) | "As the leading organization representing hospice and palliative care providers, NHPCO works to expand access to a proven person-centered model for healthcare—one that provides patients and their loved ones with comfort, peace, and dignity during life’s most intimate and vulnerable experiences."

Palliative Care Australia (PCA) | "Palliative Care Australia (PCA) is the national peak body for palliative care. Palliative Care Australia represents all those who work towards high quality palliative care for all Australians who need it."

Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care | "Bringing people together to improve experiences of declining health, death, dying and bereavement..."

World Health Organization | "Palliative care improves the quality of life of patients and that of their families who are facing challenges associated with life-threatening illness, whether physical, psychological, social or spiritual. The quality of life of caregivers improves as well."

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Loved one with a serious illness?

Hi, my name is Jeremy. My husband was just diagnosed with a life-limiting illness. When his doctor recommended palliative care I reacted in fear, thinking it sounded like a death sentence. They assured me that it's not, and it was then that I realized how little I actually know about palliative care.

I think many of us could benefit from a clearer understanding of what that means.

Introduction to Palliative Care (Learning Module)