Kids Health Info

Palliative care - an overview

  • What is Palliative Care?

    The term Palliative Care is used to describe the care and support that is provided to people who have a life limiting (i.e. serious, terminal) illness. In the case of children it involves:

    • Ensuring the child is comfortable and in the best possible condition so that they can do things that are important and fun (e.g. going to school or kinder).
    • Helping families with difficult decisions.
    • Helping parents to support their child around any worries or questions they might have.
    • Helping parents support the brothers and sisters of the sick child.
    • Supporting parents.
    • Providing practical help with equipment, medications and respite care.
    • Ensuring families are able to access support at the time of their bereavement.

    Does having palliative care mean giving up?

    Sometimes it is difficult to know what the outcome of a serious illness might be. Children and parents may find themselves in the difficult position of having to decide whether or not to pursue treatments that offer a small chance of a cure. It is possible to go ahead with such treatments and still receive elements of palliative care. In this way, families can "hope for the best but prepare for the worst".

    Is palliative care only for children with cancer?

    No.  Palliative care is available for all children facing life-limiting illnesses.

    What are the choices available to families?

    Care at home

    Many families wish to care for their children at home because they feel secure there and are better able to control their daily routines. It also increases the opportunity for parents, siblings, friends and extended family of the child to help with their care. Families may find the support of a palliative care service helpful when they are at home. In Victoria, palliative care providers are located in local communities and offer a range of services including nursing, counselling, bereavement support and in some cases complementary therapies such as music therapy and massage.

    Care in hospital

    While most symptoms can be readily controlled at home, some children may need admission to hospital from time to time and some families may feel unable to care for their child at home for various reasons. Hospital staff try, wherever possible, to care for children in a private room and provide a comfortable environment for the family. Children and families have access to the support of all members of the hospital's health care team including doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains and others.

    Care in a hospice

    Palliative care can also be provided in a hospice. Very Special Kids House in Melbourne is a purpose-built hospice for children. The emphasis is on creating a home-like environment where family and friends are encouraged to be involved. Very Special Kids House also keeps a bed available for admission at short notice.  Accommodation is also available for parents. (See Kids Health Info fact sheet:  Palliative care - resources)

    Many children and their families will move between these places of care. It is important to understand that you can change your mind during the course of your child's illness. This is particularly important for those who choose home care. There will always be a bed available in the hospital ward if, at any time, you feel hospital care is more appropriate. Staff at the hospital are also available to provide guidance and advice regarding the care of children at home and in the hospice.

    More information


    Produced by the RCH Department of Palliative Care. Updated October 2010.

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This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.