Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging Health Care

A Caregiver’s Guide to Palliative Care

Written by Karla T. Washington, PhD, associate professor of palliative medicine at the School of Medicine and Institute for Public Health faculty scholar

According to recent research, nearly one in five Americans provides care to a family member or friend age 18 or older. Many recipients of this care are living with serious health conditions such as heart disease, dementia, chronic lung disease, or cancer that can cause burdensome symptoms and negatively affect the quality of life of both the care recipient and their caregivers. For many of these individuals, palliative care may be helpful. Below are some common questions and answers about palliative care.

What is Palliative Care?

Palliative care helps seriously ill individuals and their families manage the symptoms and stress that often accompany a significant illness. In many healthcare systems, palliative care is provided by specially-trained professionals, including doctors, nurses, social workers, and others who work together with patients and their families to address physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs.

Is Palliative Care the Same as Hospice?

No. Hospice is a specific type of palliative care for people in their final months of life. Most palliative care services can be provided at any point in the disease process, even as early as the time of diagnosis.

Where Is Palliative Care Provided?

As palliative care grows, the number of places it is offered increases. In many health systems today, palliative care can be provided on an inpatient or outpatient basis. That means patients can receive palliative care when they are admitted to the hospital or by attending an appointment at a palliative care clinic. Some health systems even offer palliative care to patients and families in the home.

Will I Need to Stop Other Types of Care to Receive Palliative Care?

No. Palliative care teams provide individualized care that matches each patient and family’s unique values, preferences, and goals. Palliative care can be offered alongside many other types of treatments, including treatments designed to slow or cure a disease.

Is Palliative Care Only for Older Adults?

No. Palliative care can be provided to patients of any age. In the United States, many serious illnesses are more common in older adulthood, so palliative care patients tend to be older. Still, there are palliative care patients who are 1 minute old and palliative care patients who are 101 years old.

How Do Palliative Care Teams Interact with Patients’ Families?

Palliative care teams view patients and their families as a “unit of care.” That means they offer care not only to patients but also to anyone patients consider family. Family members in caregiving roles may be especially likely to find palliative care beneficial since palliative care teams often include healthcare professionals with expertise in caregiver support.

How Can I Learn More?

Visit for accurate and up-to-date information about palliative care, including a provider directory and a quiz that can help you know if palliative care might be right for your family. Be sure to also talk to your current healthcare provider, who can help you make decisions about your care, and who can connect you with a palliative care team in your area.

Karla Washington will be a panelist at the April 13 Friedman Lecture & Awards event, “Illness Care: Advances and Opportunities”. The free, hybrid event takes place from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and is open to all.