Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about palliative care? My husband suffers from lung disease and is receiving radiation for prostate cancer but is not terminally ill. I’ve heard that palliative care can help him with his pain and discomfort. What can you tell me?
Palliative care is a very effective service that can help patients relieve the symptoms and stress that often comes with serious illness. But unfortunately, most people don’t know about it, or don’t understand how it can help them. Here’s what you should know.
What is Palliative Care?
Most people hear the words “palliative care” and think “hospice,” but they are different types of care. Hospice is reserved for when curative treatments have been exhausted and patients have less than six months to live.
Palliative care, on the other hand, is a medical specialty that focuses on providing relief from the symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, constipation, nausea, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping and even depression. It can also help patients deal with the side effects of medical treatment.
Anyone with a serious illness can benefit from palliative care, including those with cancer, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and more.
Palliative care is provided by a team including palliative care doctors, nurses, social workers and other specialists that work with your doctor to provide an extra layer of support and care. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and it can be provided along with curative treatment.
Palliative care teams are trained to help patients understand all their treatment options as well as the quality of life ramifications, so they can make informed decisions about what’s best for them.
Often patients assume their doctors will take care of their pain and stress, but most doctors in our specialized medical system have not been well trained in pain and symptom management. That’s why palliative care is invaluable.
Palliative care was developed in the United States in the 1990s but only became a formal medical subspecialty in 2008. Today, three-quarters of U.S. hospitals with more than 50 beds have a palliative care program, and 90 percent of hospitals with 300 beds or more offer it.
How to Get Care
There are around 6 million people in the U.S. that have a need for palliative care, according to the Center to Advance Palliative Care, but most patients don’t know to ask for it. If you feel that a palliative care specialist could help your husband, start by talking to his doctor and ask for a referral.
If your doctor isn’t helpful, go to GetPalliativeCare.org, where you can search for a specialist in your area.
Palliative care can be provided in in a variety of places, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, doctor’s clinics and at your own home.
You’ll also be happy to know that most private insurance plans, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, cover palliative care services.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.