Palliative Care: What you need to know

palliative care

When someone you love is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, you might encounter the term “palliative care.” Palliative care can make a big difference to a patient’s quality of life – and to the lives of their family members – but what does it mean? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about palliative care.


Palliative care is specialized health care for people with life-threatening illness and their families. Treatment plans are personalized to meet the needs of the patient and their family, and aim to ensure the best quality of life by providing relief from the symptoms, pain and stress that are by-products of the illness.

The World Health Organization defines palliative care as:

  • Providing relief from pain and other distressing symptoms
  • Offering a support system to help the patient and family cope during the illness
  • Using a team approach to address the needs of the patient and their family
  • Integrating the psychological and spiritual aspects of patient care
  • Enhancing quality of life and quality of death


Serious illnesses affect all aspects of the patient’s life, as well as the lives of their family members. The goal of palliative care is to provide wide-ranging support in the following areas:

Physical symptoms

  • Such as pain, shortness of breath, loss of appetite or trouble sleeping
  • Treatment may include medicine, physical therapy, nutritional guidance or occupational therapy

Emotional and social challenges

  • Stress caused by an illness can lead to anxiety, fear or depression
  • Treatment may include counselling, support groups or referrals to mental health providers

Practical problems

  • For example, problems such as money- or job-related issues, insurance questions and legal issues
  • Support may include providing or referring families to financial counselling, transportation and housing resources, or explaining complex medical forms

Spiritual issues

  • Patients and their families may question their faith or look for meaning in their illness
  • Support may include helping them work with a spiritual leader to explore their beliefs and values


“Palliative care has been shown to significantly reduce depression, anxiety, symptom burden and improve quality of life, and sometimes even increases life expectancy for people with life-limiting illnesses,” says Dr. David Henderson, medical director of Colchester East Hants Palliative Care Program.

He stresses the importance of palliative care as Canada’s population continues to age. According to Statistics Canada, nearly one in six Canadians was age 65 or older as of July 1, 2015. By 2024, Canadians aged 65 years and older will account for more than 20 percent of the population. In Nova Scotia, which has a greater population of seniors and a higher incidence of chronic disease, access to palliative care is even more important.

The Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians recently released a report calling on all levels of government to improve access to palliative care. Currently, only one in three Canadians has access to specialized palliative care services.

Where can I LEARN MORE?

For more information about palliative care services in Nova Scotia, visit Caregivers Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Hospice Palliative Care Association.


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