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Palliative Care in Older Adults

Palliative Care in Older Adults

end-of-life careRather than striving to halt, delay, or reverse disease progression or provide a cure, the goal of palliative care is to prevent and relieve suffering and to improve quality of life for people facing a serious, complex illness. Nonhospice palliative care does not depend on prognosis and is offered in conjunction with curative and all other appropriate forms of medical treatment. While any noncurative approach to treatment may be viewed as palliative, the 2 most familiar palliative approaches are pain management and hospice.

The goal of psychiatric care late in life is the remission of symptoms of mood, anxiety, cognitive, and behavioral disorders along with rehabilitation of psychosocial functioning and improved quality of life. Remission of symptoms may be viewed as a “cure” if it is sustained. In many patients, however, symptoms follow a waxing and waning course that requires a palliative care approach. For these patients and their families, cure may not be a reasonable goal of treatment; rather, a reduction in symptoms and an improved quality of life may be a more reasonable approach.

Although the concept of palliative care is not new, most physicians have traditionally concentrated on trying to cure patients. The term “palliative care” is increasingly used with regard to diseases other than cancer, such as chronic progressive pulmonary disorders, renal disease, chronic heart failure, HIV/AIDS, and progressive neurological and treatment-resistant psy-chiatric conditions.

In this article, I address 3 conditions in which psychiatrists may offer a palliative care approach to optimize the quality of life of older adults who have treatment-resistant mood disorders, pain, or moderate to advanced dementia.

Older patients with treatment-resistant mood disorders

As defined by the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, refractory depression is the persistence of significant symptoms despite at least 2 treatment trials with drugs from different pharmacological classes, each used in an adequate dose for an adequate period.1 If combination and augmentation pharmacotherapy, other somatic interventions (electroconvulsive therapy [ECT], bright light therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation), and psychotherapy have not led to significant resolution of symptoms, a palliative approach may be an option.

Using a palliative approach does not mean that the patient, his or her family, and the physician should give up hope that symptoms will improve. It may, however, involve a shift in the expectations of treatment outcome. In challenging cases, it may be helpful to approach the disorder as a chronic condition that requires long-term management (such as diabetes or hypertension) to maintain symptoms at a tolerable level.

Patients with such chronic conditions generally require life-long treatment with 1 or more antidepressant medications, maintenance ECT, and augmentation therapies. Targeting specific symptoms with the palliative approach may enhance quality of life for both patients and their caregivers. For example, if fatigue or sedation is a prominent symptom that is resistant to traditional pharmacological and/or behavioral interventions, trials of CNS stimulants such as methylphenidate or mixed amphetamine salts may be useful. If insomnia is recalcitrant to behavioral therapy and/or pharmacotherapy with 1 agent and obstructive sleep apnea has been excluded, the use of more than 1 hypnotic, such as a benzodiazepine, and a sedating antidepressant may be required. While we do not view these interventions as curative, they may be critical in improving quality of life. Common sense must apply regard-ing polypharmacy, adverse effects, changes in pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics associated with aging, and diversion of drugs of potential abuse.



For some older adults with treatment-resistant mood and anxiety disorders, advanced cognitive decline, and chronic pain, cure may not be the goal of treatment. Rather, a reduction in symptoms and an improved quality of life may be a more reasonable approach.

•  Effective use of a palliative care approach often requires a multidisciplinary approach.

When treating a patient with dementia, among the psychiatrist’s most important functions are to advocate for the patient and his or her family, to manage behavioral and mood disturbances, and to minimize caregiver burden.

Older patients with pain

Psychiatrists caring for older adults evaluate and treat patients with persistent pain in the office, nursing home, psychiatric hospital, and medical hospital. Consistent with the principles of palliative care, the psychiatric approach to persistent pain is not disease modification; rather, the goal is to reduce symptom severity and improve quality of life. Given that up to 50% of community-dwelling seniors experience pain that interferes with normal function and 45% to 80% of nursing home residents have daily pain, care of these patients should, at the least, involve routine assessment for pain severity and pain-related disability.2,3

Although some psychiatrists who work with the elderly are comfortable prescribing oral and topical analgesics and collaborating with primary care physicians and physical and occupational therapists, the majority of psychiatrists feel little “ownership” of or comfort with this area of medicine. For all psychiatrists, however, knowledge about the typical presentation and differential diagnosis of pain conditions (Table 1) will assist in precise and effective transdisciplinary communication and will allow for treatment recommendations.

In the specialized setting in which I practice, I routinely assess for and assist in the management of both the psychiatric and pain conditions of elderly patients. I have found the following steps useful when assessing a patient:

• Introduce yourself and let the patient know that you are a psychiatrist with an interest in pain management

• Take a full pain history that includes a chart review; an etiology and a description of the pain; past treatments; and the degree to which pain interferes with activities, relationships, independence, and sleep

• Assess the psychiatric chief complaint and history of the psychiatric illness

• Pay attention to psychiatric comorbidity, sleep problems, and suicidal ideation, because patients with chronic pain and psychiatric disorders are at higher risk for these conditions4-7

Most of the prescriptions that I write are for antidepressants, anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines, stimulants, and hypnotics; however, to properly care for patients has required that I be comfortable prescribing both oral (eg, acetaminophen, opioids) and topical (eg, lidocaine patch, capsaicin, compounded creams) analgesics. When opioids are required, I usually prescribe tramadol; hydrocodone; oxycodone; or a longer-acting morphine derivative, such as the transdermal fentanyl patch. Although I occasionally prescribe NSAIDs, given their potential GI and cardiovascular toxicity, I usually leave the prescribing of these agents to pain physicians or primary care physicians. Their use, however, frequently goes into my consultation reports as treatment recommendations.


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