What Is Palliative Care and Is It Right for Your Family?

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Family Caregiver Alliance 

Gary’s 69-year-old mother was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. After a successful surgical procedure, she has just begun chemotherapy treatments and while Gary and his mom hope she will recover, he worries about the side effects from her treatment, including loss of appetite, exhaustion, and nausea.  Gary has also noticed that his mom isn’t as talkative as she once was and wonders if there’s more that can be done for her. While she isn’t at the end-of-life and in need of hospice care, Gary does wonder if there is something that can be done to help ease her symptoms.

For Gary and thousands of other caregivers, coping with a new, or worsening, medical condition is a stressful and sometimes frightening situation. However, palliative care can address some of the issues that accompany a serious health condition.

What is Palliative Care?
The overarching goal of palliative care is to improve the quality of life for the affected individual and their family who is helping with their care.  In a 2010 study featured in the New England Journal of Medicine, lung-cancer patients who received palliative care early in the course of their cancer treatments reported less depressive symptoms, higher quality of life, and also lived almost three months longer than a similar group of patients who did not receive palliative care.

Palliative care can encompass a number of treatments and is provided by a team of medical professionals.  For example, palliative care may assist Gary’s mother in managing her nausea and provide her with the appropriate medication and techniques to improve appetite and food intake. For another person, palliative care can mean help with managing chronic pain.  Palliative care can also address emotional questions that accompany a serious health diagnosis.  This can include making decisions about treatments, discussing end-of-life care preferences, financial challenges of paying medical bills, or even the stress of watching a loved one go through chemotherapy.  You can read more stories about how other patients have used palliative care at www.getpalliativecare.org.

Common types of illnesses that palliative care is available for include cancer, Congestive Heart Failure, Alzheimer’s, kidney failure, HIV/AIDS and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Most commonly, palliative care will be provided by a team of physicians and nurses in a hospital setting, however care can also be arranged in nursing home facilities, or at home, which can help provide significant stress relief for family caregivers worried about their loved ones’ overall wellbeing after leaving a hospital setting.

What is the Difference between palliative and hospice care?
Hospice care is intended only for individuals with terminal illnesses whose medical professional believes that their life expectancy is six months or less.  Another requirement to receive hospice care is to stop curative care. In contrast, palliative care can be provided in conjunction with curative care to address the symptoms and side effects of treatments. In the event a condition worsens, palliative care can be transitioned into hospice care, providing comfort at the end of life.  The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization has a chart that compares hospice and palliative care.

How Do We Get Palliative Care?
Family caregivers who feel that palliative care could benefit their loved one should discuss palliative care options with their loved one’s physician. In most instances, doctors will provide a referral and a social worker will be available as part of the palliative care team to assist in arranging connections to the right care providers.  This care team will typically include a team of doctors and nurses but may also include nutritionists, massage therapists or chaplains to provide care for the mind, body and soul. The variation of available team members helps to ensure that patients, and caregivers, have links to the best resources based on an individual’s condition.

How Is Palliative Care Paid For?
As with all medical care, cost is often a concern for many family caregivers. However, insurance plans, including those available to seniors through Medicare or Medicaid, may provide coverage for periods of palliative care. The social worker on your care team can answer questions you may have about the cost of palliative care.

When a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, palliative care can help address the many quality of life issues that can arise.  Additionally, in the instance that an illness progresses over time, palliative care can often be transitioned into hospice care; ensuring that seniors have ongoing relief of symptoms that are a detriment to their quality of life.

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