Palliative Care’s Healing Powers for Caregivers, Too

Five months ago, my 91-year-old mother suffered a massive stroke and spent six days in the palliative care unit of a Connecticut hospital. The specially trained physician, nurse, social worker, and pastoral counselor kept her pain-free until she died.

What they did for me was equally remarkable: they nursed me, the emotionally and physically exhausted caregiver, through what felt like a slow motion death. Their kindness allowed me to heal more quickly than I believe I would have without palliative care.

Palliative care, hospital or home-based, is a way to manage pain, provide emotional support to the patient and family, and help the family navigate our maddening health care system. Like hospice, it can be used for end-of-life, but doesn’t have to be. It can also help control pain from chemotherapy or other medical treatments.

The National Palliative Care Research Center reports these specialized programs have shot up to more than 1500 from 600 in the last decade.  Sixty percent of U.S. hospitals with 50+ beds offer palliative care. Many physicians hook up patients at home with this option, as well.

It makes sense. Studies show this holistic type of care can slash costs by reducing unnecessary tests and treatment, as well as suffering and mental distress. Oh, it can also prolong life.

The first night my mother was moved to this special unit, there was a shower in her room–the first shower I had taken in three days. Unsolicited, the nurse brought me a towel, a razor, deodorant, and a toothbrush. An aide had placed a robe and hospital socks on the couch-turned-bed next to my mother’s bed.

The Team not only explained what was happening to her, but wanted to know what she was like. What was important to her?

They also wanted to know what was important to me and how I was doing. They asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about unrelated to my mother’s dying. (Yes, but I’m not sharing here.) They hugged me when they came and left, never acting rushed.

And when it was over, it wasn’t really over. I received handwritten letters from everyone on The Team. The nurse wrote: “From all of your stories, your mother seems like she was an amazing woman.” The counselor said, “You, my friend, showed such courage and grace under fire.”

They followed up with a call the first week to see how I was doing, and then six weeks after. Three months later, I received a booklet from them listing support groups in my area. I didn’t have to do this alone.

Neither do you.

To find out about palliative care, go to  National Palliative Care Research Center. You can also find great resources in AARP’s Caregiving Resource Center.

View more from Sally Abrahms at