What is palliative care? For many people, they immediately ask for assistance pronouncing the word again. It is not familiar. For others, it means something closely related to hospice. The reality is that palliative care is a level of care that many and perhaps most people do not really understand.
The best starting place is probably the most uncomfortable starting place. That is, that we have to acknowledge that we will not live forever. We all know that… sort of. The problem is that we don’t really accept it for ourselves and are especially reluctant when it involves our loved ones.
Added to the difficulty of accepting the reality of mortality is that end of life is very difficult. We may want to have the fairy tale illusion of dying peacefully in our sleep. That just doesn’t happen for the majority of people. End of life is hard and full of great difficulties and burdens. The list of symptoms that patients may suffer through is long and frightening. As Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
This is where palliative care comes in. Palliative care focuses on all the parts of advanced illness that give people the most problems. First, palliative care tries to focus on the emotional well-being of the patient and especially his or her family. There may be a need to help with defining goals of care. While everyone wants their loved one to “get well,” that may simply not be possible due to the point that they have reached in their life and in their illness. Gently helping a family to understand that is both challenging and rewarding.
Focusing also on the physical and psychological symptoms of advanced illness is another goal of palliative care. The aim is to try to provide the patient with the best quality of life that they can have within the context of the reality of their illness. It is not unreasonable to say “I just want to have a good day.”
Palliative care works to try to make that happen.