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Abstract

Palliative care practitioners are now better able than ever before to ameliorate end-of-life symptom distress. What remains less developed, however, is the knowledgebase and skill set necessary to recognize, assess, and compassionately address the psychosocial, existential, and spiritual aspects of the patient's dying experience. This review provides an overview of these areas, focusing primarily on empirical data that has examined these issues. A brief overview of psychiatric challenges in end-of-life care is complemented with a list of resources for readers wishing to explore this area more extensively. The experience of spiritual or existential suffering toward the end of life is explored, with an examination of the conceptual correlates of suffering. These correlates include: hopelessness, burden to others, loss of sense of dignity, and desire for death or loss of will to live. An empirically-derived model of dignity is described in some detail, with practical examples of diagnostic questions and therapeutic interventions to preserve dignity. Other interventions to reduce existential or spiritual suffering are described and evidence of their efficacy is presented. The author concludes that palliative care must continue to develop compassionate, individually tailored, and effective responses to the mounting vulnerability and increasingly difficult physical, psychosocial, and spiritual challenges facing persons nearing the end of life.