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Palliative care

5-minute read

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is an attempt to look after all the physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs of someone with a serious illness that cannot be cured (called a life-limiting illness). Life-limiting illnesses include cancer, motor neurone disease, end-stage kidney disease and dementia.

Palliative care aims to give the best possible quality of life to someone living with a life-limiting or terminal illness. It helps people live their life as fully and as comfortably as possible.

It does not mean the end of all treatment. It means making choices about which treatments are important, and which are not.

Palliative care is different for everyone, depending on what they need. It may include:

  • treatment to relieve pain and other symptoms
  • aids to help someone at home
  • help with washing, dressing and eating
  • links and referrals to services such as home help, financial support and respite care
  • cultural support
  • emotional, social and spiritual support
  • counselling and grief support
  • practical and emotional support for families and carers

Most people are cared for by their own doctor in partnership with other health professionals and specialist palliative care services, in close cooperation from family and friends.

What is the difference between palliative care and end-of-life care?

End-of-life care is care given during the last few weeks of life. Palliative care can be helpful at any stage of an illness. Some people receive palliative care for years.

Accepting palliative care does not mean you are giving up hope. Many people receive palliative care at the same time as active treatment. However, people with life-limiting illnesses may find that they gradually change their focus to concentrating on the things that are most important to them, such as feeling comfortable and having meaningful relationships.

Who is palliative care suitable for?

Palliative care can be offered to people of any age, including children. It can help anyone who has a serious illness that cannot be cured.

Where can I find palliative care?

People can receive palliative care in almost all places where health care is provided, such as hospitals and general practices, as well as in specialist centres such as hospices, and in their own homes.

Your doctor, community health centre, or local health department can provide information on palliative care and other relevant care services.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What are my palliative care choices?

It is important to understand what palliative care can offer and the range of services available. This will allow you to make better decisions about what kind of care is suitable, where to have it, and when to make a change.

Even if you are undergoing active treatment, you can still benefit from palliative care. It is a good idea to discuss the options with your doctor. If you have advanced disease, it is important to discuss your prognosis, wishes, values and end of life planning with your doctor.

When someone is nearing the end of their life and comes to a hospital department such as emergency or intensive care, it is important for them and their family to have a clear plan of the goals of care, as well as their wishes around medical treatment, so this can be discussed with the doctors.

For further information about palliative care recommendations speak to your doctor or visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Resources and support

There are a range of national resources and state resources for people receiving palliative care and their carers. These government and non-government services relate to medical, financial and psychosocial support.

You can also visit the PalliAGED website for information on palliative care and end of life care and services for older Australians.

Other languages

Visit the CareSearch website for links to palliative care and end-of-life information in different community languages.

Disease-specific resources

Information from disease-specific organisations.

Are you a carer or helping someone out?

Carers are everyday people who provide unpaid and ongoing care and support to someone they know who has a disability, mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency, chronic condition, terminal illness or who is frail.

Support for carers

Find practical information and useful resources for carers on Carer Gateway. You can also learn more about carers' support and services in your state or territory through Carers Australia.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2021

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There are many services and resources that can help you providing care for someone with a life limiting illness. This can make a difference to your well-being and to the comfort and support of the person needing care. However, carers often don’t make use of these services because they don’t know they exist, they have no time to ask or they don’t want to feel a failure.

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