Palliative care is defined by the World Health Organization as: "an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification, assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual."
As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1789: "... in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Although this may be true, a quick internet search tells us there is an awful lot more written about taxes than there is about death and dying. Why is this?
Perhaps it's because we don't want to acknowledge this truth - a big part of palliative care is about helping people to talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life. As a society, our lack of openness affects the care that is available to us and to our families. If we don't talk about what we want to happen to us, there's little chance that we will get it.
What is it?
Palliative care is about life-threatening illness. It's about how we adapt to having such an illness and how we cope with it. It's not about dying itself, but about accepting that dying is a natural part of everybody's life cycle. You might think that palliative care is about painkillers and medicines to stop you being sick; however, good palliative care is so much more than that. Good palliative care is as much about talking about death and dying as it is about medicines.
What palliative care is not
Palliative care is not about the last few days or hours of life. It's not about being given medicines that will speed up our demise. It's not about our doctor having given up on us. It's absolutely not about being denied food and water so that we die of starvation, and it's not about hopelessness. It's about hope. But instead of hope being for a cure, hope becomes about making sure that life is as good as it possibly can be, right until the end.
When will I need it?
Whenever it's likely to help. Palliative care can start as early as when a life-threatening condition is suspected. It can carry on through your diagnosis and then on to your cure or living with an illness to death. It can also carry on into bereavement support for your family and friends.
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