Palliative care is the care and support provided to people with an incurable illness. The focus is on improving quality of life, and palliative care can be provided from the time of diagnosis or introduced at a later stage in your illness. Some people receive palliative care for many years, while others receive it only during their last weeks or days. 

End-of-life care is provided in the last months, weeks and days of your illness with a focus on managing symptoms. Practical and emotional support will be provided to you and those important to you at this time.

You may receive palliative care alongside treatments, therapies and medicines aimed at managing your illness, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. This is one of the ways that palliative care differs from end-of-life care, which focuses on the last 12 months of life. At that point, palliative care may become part of the package of end-of-life care and any unnecessary treatments are stopped. The focus of palliative care is on managing symptoms and keeping you comfortable with the aim of adding life to days and not days to life.

How palliative care can help

Palliative care provides a range of support and services both for you, those important to you and carers. It takes an holistic approach that addresses your total needs, not just your specific medical condition.

For example, a palliative care team can:

  • provide advice and support with managing physical symptoms, such as pain, nausea and fatigue
  • help you cope with the emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of living with an incurable illness
  • help you plan, such as adjusting to life changes or discussing how and where care can be provided
  • refer to social care for help with such things as washing, dressing or eating 
  • support your family and friends – even if you do not want to have palliative care yourself, your family and friends can still access help; you would need to give permission to healthcare professionals to discuss your illness with others
  • arrange transfer to a hospice, hospital or care home, as appropriate.

Palliative care also has a role to play in affirming life and normalising the process of dying. This includes allowing death to come at its own speed, neither hastening it nor trying to postpone it. 

People who receive palliative care are generally very positive about it.

Who provides palliative care?

Palliative care is provided by a range of professionals. Some of those will be general health and social care professionals who provide palliative care as part of their roles, including:

  • your GP
  • community nurses
  • social workers
  • care workers
  • pastoral carers, chaplains or other spiritual leaders.

If you have more complex needs, you may see specialist healthcare professionals who have been trained in providing palliative care. They include:

  • palliative care doctors
  • nurse specialists, such as the community palliative care nurse specialists
  • counsellors
  • specialist health professionals, such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists and dieticians
  • specialist social workers.

Palliative care at home

Palliative care is frequently offered to patients in their own home. As long as adequate care can be arranged, many people prefer the reassurance of remaining in a familiar environment.

Your GP can advise you on the care services available in your area. This can include arranging home visits by a community nurse. Your local authority’s social services team is another important source of care at home.

Palliative care at a day hospice

Hospices also care for patients at the hospice in a day-care unit, often called Living Well centres (as at Katharine House Hospice and Sobell House Hospice).

The care provided by these outpatient services includes such things as art, music therapy and photography; time for reflection, mindfulness and relaxation, as well as more practical support such as hand massages, lymphoedema treatment and strength and balance sessions.

The services are run by multi-professional teams that include nurses, doctors, healthcare assistants, chaplains, social workers, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, generally supported by a team of volunteers.

Palliative care in a care home

If you’re unable to stay at home and you are in need of palliative care, you could consider moving to a care home. Care homes have trained staff available to provide personal care, such as help with washing and dressing.

If you are living in a care home, find out whether it can provide the care and support you require, including support from a GP and specialist nurses. To help make this difficult decision, read Age UK’s information on Choosing the right care home for you .

If your needs are more complex or you have very restricted mobility, you may want to think about moving to a nursing home. They can provide 24-hour nursing care alongside help with personal care. If you do require this level of nursing care, you may be entitled to NHS funding towards the costs. Read our article on NHS funding for care to find out more.

Some key questions to consider if choosing a care home for palliative care include:

  • Will you be close to family and friends?
  • Do care home staff receive regular end-of-life care training?
  • What arrangements are there in the home for care and support from a GP and community nurses?
  • Will you still be able to see your current GP if you move into the home?
  • What does the care regulator (for example, the Care Quality Commission  in England) say about the service?
  • Is the care home accredited for the quality of its service? For example, the Gold Standards Framework  offers training and accreditation to care providers to ensure a high standard of care to patients at the end of life.

Palliative care in hospital

Many hospitals have a palliative care team based on site, which is a group of specialist palliative care doctors, nurses and other professionals working across the hospital. They work alongside and help hospital staff to care for people nearing the end of their lives.

Palliative care in hospital is the same type of help for managing symptoms and giving the emotional, psychological and practical support that you’ll find from a community palliative care team at home or in an inpatient unit at a hospice.

Related pages

  • What is end-of-life care?: read more about what care is provided in the last months, weeks and days of your illness with a focus on managing symptoms.
  • Who provides palliative care?: a detailed look at the different care teams and support services for palliative care at home, in a hospice or elsewhere.
  • How we help: Katharine House Hospice has palliative care teams in the community, at the hospice itself for our Living Well services and in the inpatient unit, and in local hospitals.

The EPiC Resource Centre is kindly sponsored by Cleenol: working for a cleaner, safer, kinder world.