meaning palliative care

Palliative care definition and meaning

5 min read |

Sadly there may come a time when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

It will undoubtedly be a challenging experience for the whole family, but thankfully there is help available.

After diagnosis your loved one should start receiving palliative care. But what does palliative care actually mean?

In this article we will examine palliative care meaning and what’s involved so you can ensure your loved one gets the right type of support.

Here’s what we will cover in this article:

  • Palliative care is for individuals with a terminal diagnosis and life-limiting illnesses.
  • It can involve spiritual, emotional and psychological care, as well as supportive therapies alongside medical treatments.
  • A variety of people might be involved in delivering palliative care such as doctors, nurses, carers and therapists.
what is palliative care meaning?

What does palliative care mean? 

The meaning of the word palliative – in relation to medical care – is as follows:

‘relieving pain without dealing with the cause of the condition’

Whether relating to medicine or care, palliative, focuses on the symptoms of a condition rather than the cause.

Palliative care meaning

Palliative care is the treatment offered to an individual after being given a terminal diagnosis.

Alongside any other treatment they may receive, palliative care tries to alleviate or manage discomfort associated with the illness diagnosed.

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Holistic approach to care

Palliative care is considered a holistic approach to managing terminal illness. 

Holistic means to consider the whole person, rather than just the illness or symptoms. 

Medical treatment of a condition usually focuses on that alone, for example using chemotherapy to try to eradicate cancer. 

However the effects of an illness such as cancer can be felt in many aspects of life. 

palliative care at home

What does palliative care include?

Palliative care can include pain relief, mental health support, and nursing support for the patient, amongst other disciplines. 

Other aspects of palliative care might encompass pain relief, psychological or emotional support, even physiotherapy for those with limited mobility. 

Nursing care can also come under the umbrella of palliative care. 

Community palliative care nurses

If an individual chooses to remain at home for treatment, after a terminal diagnosis, then they can receive visits from a community palliative care nurse.

Those attending a hospice will have access to a number of palliative care therapies and treatments.

what does palliative care mean

Who is offered palliative care?

Palliative care is available to anyone who has had a diagnosis of a terminal or very serious illness. 

It may also encompass conditions which significantly affect the quality of life of the person diagnosed. 

Sometimes palliative care is offered when medical treatments cause associated illness or pain themselves, or are very time consuming and affect quality of life. 

These might include treatments for conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, COPD and cancers.

Palliative care meaning for cancer

For example if an individual has cancer then the medical team would deal with the treatment of the disease and symptoms, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

The palliative care team will deal with whatever additional symptoms or issues your illness may cause. This might encompass pain management or aspects of personal care.

holistic approach to care

Palliative care facilities

As well as palliative care at home, it is also offered in hospices and some care homes. 

Hospices are usually associated with end of life care, but they can also be used by those diagnosed with terminal illnesses. 

Hospice care is also not always a permanent residential option. Respite care for periods of difficult treatment or tough times are on offer at many hospices. 

Respite care at care homes

Many care homes also offer temporary stays for people require a period of support perhaps through an illness or to recover from treatment. 

Some homes specialise in dementia care and offer respite care and palliative treatments for those with dementia. 

It’s not just the individual who is unwell that can receive benefit from a respite stay. 

Respite is an important part of a palliative care approach for friends, loved ones and carers of the person. 

Caring for others is tiring and sometimes overwhelming, so a respite stay at a care home or hospice can provide temporary relief from the schedule of caring.

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What is involved in palliative care?

Palliative care will be different for everyone, depending on the type of illness and symptoms they have. 

It’s also influenced by the stage of the illness the person is experiencing.

For example, pain may be a side effect of the illness, or from the treatment you are receiving for the illness. 

Your nursing team or carers may be able to administer a relevant amount of painkillers to you in treatment of this pain. While treating the side-effect, they are not treating the illness itself.

who is in a palliative care team?

What medical professionals are involved in palliative care?

Different conditions, stages of illness, and personalised care needs all require specific input by qualified care specialists.  

Palliative care therefore encompasses a wide-range of therapies, administered by multiple healthcare professionals. 

Palliative care multidisciplinary team

For example, a doctor or nurse practitioner would assess pain needs, prescribe and administer any drugs needed, and diagnose side effects from treatments and the illness itself. 

They will also be able to support the wider health of the person such as monitoring and treating any other conditions or illnesses that arise and taking blood tests. 

Carers may attend to personal care and counsellors could be involved to provide psychological support.

Therapists such as massage therapists or acupuncture practitioners can help with general wellbeing and can ease discomfort.

Who’s in the palliative care team?

Let’s look at each person in the palliative care team in more detail.

Palliative care and the pharmacist

A pharmacist will dispense medicines, advise on other health concerns and offer general treatment support.

A dietician or nutritionist and palliative care

A dietician or nutritionist can ensure a care plan includes adequate nutrition and hydration to support the general health of the person. 

See our detailed guide for more information on what is a care plan?

palliative care means

Social worker and palliative care

Social workers or individuals from the social care team at the local authority should provide assistance with applying for benefits or local authority funding for care in your own home

Psychologists and counsellors

The emotional and psychological toll that a life limiting illness can take is different in every case. For this reason, psychologists and counsellors are often part of the palliative care team and can attend to someone’s individual mental wellbeing. 


As movement becomes more difficult or if some actions become impaired then physiotherapists can assist in a number of different ways. 

From walking aids, to stretching and assistance with correct seating/sleeping postures, physiotherapists help with maintaining quality of life while alleviating stress and pain symptoms.

care home next of kin

Occupational therapist

Individuals who struggle to perform personal care tasks might benefit from occupational therapy to make adaptations to daily life. 

Spiritual support

Spiritual practice can be important for people undergoing treatment and therapy for terminal illnesses. 

A spiritual advisor, such as a chaplain or any other religious leader, can form part of the support team around the person.

help for elderly at home

When does palliative care become end of life care? 

Naturally, because of the nature of palliative care, there is some crossover between it, and end of life care. 

Palliative care may begin on diagnosis of a terminal illness, with physiotherapy and counselling, for example. 

When the disease has progressed to the point that end of life is predicted within 12 months, then end of life care begins.

Pain management needs are likely to increase and spiritual and psychological care needs may also grow in importance as the end of life grows closer.

Find care for your loved one

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