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Palliative Care: A Key to Living With Dignity

This growing approach to care is not limited to end-of-life cases

Patient with health-care professional, palliative care

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Research suggests that palliative care may prolong a person's life.

One of my favorite things about being AARP president is talking with members from around the country. And in those conversations, a certain theme comes up over and over: People want to live their lives with dignity.

So it troubles me that our health care system sometimes stands in the way. And that brings me to a topic that is extremely important, yet not well understood: palliative care.

Palliative care is a specialized approach to easing suffering for people with serious illness. It's about relieving pain, reducing symptoms and easing stress. It's about honoring people's personal wishes and values. This may include a need for medications, counseling, faith-based support and better communication with health care providers about treatment options.

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As the Center to Advance Palliative Care explains it, the goal is to enhance quality of life — for the person and his or her family.

Research suggests that palliative care may even prolong a person's life. It has been shown to ease symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath and depression. Further, it can reduce wasteful spending — on avoidable hospital costs, for instance.

But I want to be clear: Palliative care is not limited to end-of-life issues. It does not preclude treatment to cure the underlying problem or prolong life. Whatever the situation, it makes a top priority of comfort and well-being, and empowers individuals to choose their options.

As the boomer generation ages and longevity increases, more and more Americans will be contending with serious, chronic conditions. In a great many cases, palliative care can help ease their pain.

That is why AARP believes Medicare should facilitate more appropriate use of palliative care outside of hospice and let beneficiaries know about it as an option. All hospitals and nursing homes should offer palliative care teams, and this type of care should play a greater role in medical, nursing and social work education.

People can empower themselves by learning more about this growing approach to care. You may need to remind your (or your loved one's) doctor that palliative care is about quality of life and providing an added layer of support during serious illness — not just at the end of life. For a directory of palliative care options, go to