End-of-life and palliative care

When chronic illnesses progress to a point when there are no further treatments available, end-of-life (palliative) care, may be an option for you and your family. Palliative care is a system of support services, which may involve healthcare professionals, home-care services and bereavement counsellors, depending on your needs. 

What is palliative care?

Palliative or end-of-life care aims at improving the quality of life of people who are terminally ill. It focuses on:

  • Relieving pain and symptoms. Medications and complementary therapies such as massage therapy, acupuncture and physiotherapy can be used to treat symptoms such as pain, fatigue and shortness of breath.
  • Managing disability. Many patients can experience progressive disability and will depend more and more on others to take care of them. Home support services can provide meal preparation, cleaning service and transportation. You may also receive assistive devices that can help you to be as independent as possible.
  • Psychological, social and spiritual support. Depression and anxiety are common in patients with life-threatening chronic illnesses. Social support, spiritual and clinical counselling are important coping resources. Bereavement support can help families work through their grief.
  • Caregiver support. Instruction on how to care for a person or what to expect at the end of life are types of caregiver support that can be helpful to your family.
Seeking palliative care

When is it time to seek palliative care?
End-of-life care can be a sensitive topic for some patients, families and doctors to discuss. They may have fears or misconceptions. Or, they don’t know when it’s the right time to ask for it. You may wish to consider palliative care when your doctor said you have a life-threatening or life-limiting illness and:

  • You visit hospitals repeatedly and treatments for your illness are no longer providing relief or improving your quality of life.
  • You are unable to take care of yourself, or you depend more and more on others.
  • You want to get involved in your end-of-life care needs.

Who provides this care?
End-of-life care planning starts with you and your family. Nurses, doctors, end-of-life care specialists, social workers, nutritionists, physiotherapists, family members and volunteers can all be part of an interdisciplinary team.

Where do I access care? 
Palliative care can be provided at home, in hospitals, hospices or long-term care facilities. Speak to your doctor about end-of-life care programs in your community.

Financial and legal matters

Financial assistance
It is important for you and your family to find out what government assistance, employer benefits or personal financial sources, such as private health insurance, life insurance or reverse mortgage options you can use to cover your end-of-life care. Visit Health Canada to learn more about federal and provincial assistance. Find out what patient benefits and caregiver and survivor benefits you can get from Canadian Virtual Hospice.

Legal and ethical matters
Making end-of-life decisions can involve conflicts that can come from varying personal or family values, cultural differences or inconsistent medical opinion. Advance directives can help resolve some of these issues. You can make a living will to cover what treatments you want to receive or not receive. You can sign a Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) order to choose not to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). You may also name a healthcare proxy to make decisions for you. This is called Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. When you have an advance directive, you can share it with your family and doctors. Learn more about advance directives from Canadian Virtual Hospice.

Information, tools and resources

If you want more information about end-of-life care, talk to your healthcare providers. You can also visit Health Canada and Canadian Virtual Hospice to learn more about end-of-life care.

The Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association has a directory of end-of-life care services across the country. It also has a caregiver resource list.

The Canadian Virtual Hospice has an Ask an Expert Service and a discussion forum where you can talk to end-of-life specialists and people interested in palliative care.

Related information

End of life support
Health Canada
Your Conversation Starter Kit
Quality palliative care helps you honour your culture, spirituality and traditions LivingMyCulture.ca.

Transitions and community participation infographic from the Canadian Stroke Best Practices guidelines. (PDF)