National Palliative Care Week runs from 23-29 May 2021. This year’s theme is “Palliative Care—it’s more than you think” which seeks to raise awareness about the many benefits of quality palliative care.
Palliative care is defined as an approach that improves the quality of life of people with a life-limiting illness and helps them live as well as possible for as long as possible. It also provides support for their families and carers. It does this by providing more than pain relief: the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the patient are all considered important concerns in palliative care.
Modern, quality palliative care can have a big impact on the end of life experience
Palliative care in Australia has had some bad press during public euthanasia debates over the last couple of years, as proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide try to minimise its impact at the end of life. This is a pity, as it may stop some people from even trying palliative care when their turn comes to die. Modern, quality palliative care can have a big impact on the end of life experience, significantly reducing pain and suffering—but perhaps not always the way you might think!
While the benefits of palliative care are multiple, what I would like to focus on here is the importance it gives to spiritual wellbeing.
Modern palliative care emerged in the late 1960s through the work of Dame Cicely Saunders, widely acknowledged as its founder, in the United Kingdom. She believed that caring for people requires caring about them. She combined the tradition of hospitality in medieval religious communities (hospice) with modern medical techniques for treatment of symptoms.
She studied the stories of terminally ill patients and found that their suffering involved, not just physical pain, but also had social, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects. She talked about multi-dimensional or TOTAL pain. As she reintroduced a model for a good death to Western society, she placed importance on the care of the spiritual dimension of the human being.
As she reintroduced a model for a good death to Western society, Saunders placed importance on the care of the spiritual dimension.
Diagnosis of a terminal illness is known to precipitate the asking of big existential questions, such as: Why is this happening to me? Where is God in my illness? What will happen after I die? How will my family manage without me?
If individuals are unable to answer these questions, existential, or spiritual, suffering can ensue. Spiritual suffering is a complex and potentially devastating condition which can be difficult to diagnose and which can masquerade as physical pain. I think it is this type of pain that people are often referring to when they say that some pain at the end of life is ‘unrelievable’. It is certainly unrelievable if you rely on medication to take it away. Not even palliative care doctors can relieve this type of pain with medicine. Spiritual suffering can only be resolved by spiritual solutions.
Spiritual suffering is a complex and potentially devastating condition … It is certainly unrelievable if you rely on medication to take it away.
I think one of the reasons it is important to include the palliative care team in someone’s care as soon as they are diagnosed with a terminal illness is because the spiritual side of the individual is given attention. Palliative care takes a team approach to help a patient and their family and carers to cope with the challenges that come with imminent death. The team usually includes a pastoral carer, or chaplain, who can talk about the spiritual challenges and help an individual work through those big questions.
Other team members may also have training in spiritual care. Spiritual concerns can be difficult to address, but the work is more than worthwhile. When someone has been able to work through those questions and find solutions, the spiritual wellbeing they experience is as important as physical wellbeing when it comes to their quality of life.
In these cases—as has been born out in research with advanced cancer patients—wellbeing means the ability to die with a sense of peace. They can heal spiritually even as their bodies waste away. What a blessing. Surely it’s what we all want.
They can heal spiritually even as their bodies waste away. What a blessing
The recently released National Palliative Care Community Survey found that, while 88% of respondents think it is important to start thinking and talking about their wishes and preferences for care if they were to become seriously or terminally ill, 50% of respondents have done nothing about it. The main reasons for this delay were because they believed that talking about their preferences for the end of their life would upset their family and because they found the topic of death and planning for the end of their life too difficult to talk about.
These conversations often focus on things like: whether the person wants to be admitted to Intensive Care if they are really sick; their preferred place of death. But the spiritual questions also deserve attention if spiritual suffering is to be avoided. Death and eternal destiny have long been a focus of traditional religious concern.
Those in our churches should be at the forefront of leading conversations about end of life. Do you know how you would answer the big questions if you were diagnosed with a terminal illness? Do you understand the meaning of your life? Don’t wait until you are diagnosed with a terminal illness before you start to think about these things. Spiritual wellbeing improves quality of life wherever you are in its trajectory.
But if you are facing death, there is help available. Palliative care—It’s more than you think. Take a look. https://morethanyouthink.org.au/