When you are caring for someone living with a life limiting illness, your GP is a core part of the health team providing care. While conversations about illness and dying are difficult, it can be easier if you already have a relationship with a GP or a general practice. Some conversations may be with the patient only, some with you as the carer and some with both of you. Over time you are likely to have a number of important conversations including:
Discussing death as a possibility: Your GP may be the health professional who first talks about the possibility of dying. This conversation often helps you and the person you are caring for think about what is most important and to prepare for decisions and changes. It is also a good point at which to reflect on whether you and your family or friends are in a position to care for the person at home. The GP may also want to check on your health and wellbeing as a carer and the availability of services in the area.
Sorting out services and supports: If the patient wants to be cared for at home, they will need lots of support. This means you and your family will need to be around the majority of the time to provide care. They may suggest that you register for My Aged Care, local council or community services. They may even suggest paying for a private nurse or support worker to help if you can afford it.
Engaging palliative care: Your GP may want to refer the patient to the local community palliative care service. Many people are fearful of palliative care, so your GP may explain palliative care is a way of maximising quality of life and important to be in place early to ensure that the patient and family are well supported. They will provide the palliative care service with any information that they may find useful in working with the patient and you.
CarerHelp: Having access to information is important for the whole family and your GP may suggest that you look at CarerHelp or he/she may provide some printed sheets from the website. These may be around the caring role or more specifically on the dying process.
Medications: A person at the end of life may no longer need some of their medications and supplements. Your GP may make some changes to help the patient with swallowing difficulties or if the medication is no longer going to have the desired effect. They may also talk to you about pain medications and talk to you about why there is no reason to be fearful of issues around addiction or the use of opioids.
Managing symptoms at the end of life: Your GP or the palliative service will support the family in managing symptoms that may arise at the end of life. You should feel confident to ring them to discuss issues. They will also provide you with advice about what happens after a death.
Your GP is an important part of the care team. You are likely to have a number of conversations with them while you are caring. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to seek their support. You both want the best for the person you are caring for.
Author: Associate Professor Mark Boughey, Deputy Director, Centre for Palliative Care and Director of Palliative Medicine, St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne