May 30, 2016

With physician-assisted suicide becoming a reality, there is renewed urgency for expanding palliative care, which is currently available to only one in three Canadians.

But palliative care is surrounded by misconceptions, says a Winnipeg palliative care doctor. Some people believe it actually hastens death; others think it is only for the very old or cancer sufferers.

Others believe palliative care means nothing more can be done.

"There is always something we can do" to bring comfort to the dying, said Dr. Chantale Demers.

Demers was part of a panel on palliative care May 11 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Winnipeg.

"Palliative care is an approach to care which focuses on comfort, quality of life and support for those afflicted by a life-limiting illness," she said. The aim of palliative care is to "add life to days, not just days to life."

Palliative care addresses all sources of suffering, be they physical, emotional, psychosocial or spiritual, and it requires more than just a physician, she said.

"The philosophy of palliative care affirms life and regards dying as a normal process," she said. "But our death-denying culture thinks of death as losing the battle."

The first palliative care unit in Canada opened in 1974 at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital. Today, palliative care is provided by various organizations, often with the help of volunteers, in hospitals, hospices, personal care homes and private homes.

Andre Brunet is a palliative care nurse who visits people's homes to accompany them on their final journey. Those he serves have been diagnosed with having six months to live and have chosen to discontinue aggressive treatment.

Aside from providing care aimed at making a person's final days as comfortable as possible, Brunet is there to listen.

"They will go through a lot of emotions, and it's important to talk about it. We talk about depression, and you'd be surprised how often they are not depressed."

Brunet often shares laughter with his clients and their family members, who are usually the prime caregivers. "Being part of it is a real privilege."

Cathy Lentz spoke of her mother's palliative care at a personal care home. Her mother found it a gift to be able to access all aspects of hospice care without going to hospital.

"That spiritual journey is what brought greatest comfort in the last months, weeks and days. How I experienced my mother's palliative care had a profound effect on me," Lentz said.

"One can sense God touching each person every day. Excellent palliative care made all the difference in the end of her life on earth."