They lived just a few blocks from Dalhousie Medical School, the former Halifax Infirmary and the Victoria General Hospital, perhaps as close as one can be to the most specialized health care resources in Nova Scotia.
Our family was blessed by access to round-the-clock support of a skilled, dedicated and compassionate palliative care team in my parents’ last months.
To this day, I frequently wonder how we could have got through such a difficult time without them.
At the same time, I frequently wonder about families in distress who, whether due to physical location, financial ability or other factors, do not have access to the same palliative care resources.
Last week, representatives from various faith communities united to issue an interfaith statement on palliative care that identifies the inadequacies in crucial, end-of-life care affecting Canadians from all backgrounds.
They say the time has come for a serious, national effort to strengthen palliative care: a multidisciplinary approach to health care that manages a patient’s psychological, physical, social and spiritual needs as they deal with life-threatening disease.
The focus of the statement is on improving quality of life through the prevention and relief of suffering, including pain management and psychosocial and spiritual care.
Many readers will have had first-hand experience with the palliative care system, as did our family, supporting loved ones who — thanks to the availability of such care — lived their final days in dignity and comfort.
Indeed, medical staff who work in the palliative care field have a remarkable but under-reported impact on the well-being of countless Canadians.
Tragically, these services are not universally available. Even where appropriate palliative care policies and procedures are in place, there is still a lack of resources, training and access that limits the provision of care.
It is unconscionable that only 15 to 30 per cent of Canadians can access palliative care. What’s more, nearly a quarter of all costs associated with palliative care are borne by families.
As the interfaith statement pronounced, “Compassion is a foundational element of Canadian identity, and it is accordingly incumbent on our elected officials at all levels of government to support a robust, well-resourced, national palliative care strategy.”
On June 14 in Ottawa, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Evangelical Christian representatives, among others, stood together to advocate for increased availability, accessibility, quality and consistency of palliative care, as well as for greater support for family caregivers tending to relatives with terminal illnesses.
At the same time, we must ensure that our health-care system respects the psycho-social and spiritual needs of patients and families in the dying process. This is particularly relevant in the context of the new law regarding medical assistance in dying.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) participated in this interfaith venture as a representative of Canada’s organized Jewish communities. While there are multiple viewpoints among Jewish Canadians with regard to medical assistance in dying, there is consensus that it should not become the default end-of-life choice and that palliative care of the highest quality should be accessible to all patients in need.
We are encouraged by the government of Canada’s commitment to allocate $3 billion in support of palliative and home care. There is urgent need for co-ordination with the provinces to ensure that these funds flow quickly and efficiently and that, regardless of the means or place of residence of Canadians in need, all possible measures are taken to ensure access.
Canadians nearing death should be entitled to the full range of palliative care options available to alleviate suffering and sustain dignity. The need is urgent, the cause is just, and there is broad support across political parties and levels of government.
The time for action on a national palliative care strategy is now.
Based in Halifax, Mark David serves as Atlantic Canada advocacy consultant for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).