Improving palliative care for older people in care homes

People are living longer, however, the very old often have many health problems and disabilities which result in them living and eventually dying in care homes. Residents of such homes are highly likely to die there, making these places where palliative care is needed. Palliative care provides relief from pain and other distressing symptoms experienced by people reaching the end of life. Palliative care hopes to help people live as actively as possible until death, and their families cope with the illness and bereavement. The aim of this review was to see how effective palliative care interventions in care homes are, and to describe the outcome measures used in the studies. We found only three suitable studies (735 participants), all from the USA. There was little evidence that interventions to improve palliative care for older people in care homes improved outcomes for residents. One study found that palliative care increased bereaved family members' perceptions of the quality of care and another found lower discomfort for residents with dementia who were dying. There were problems with both of these findings. Two studies found that palliative care improved some of the ways in which care was given in the care home, however, we do not know if this resulted in better outcomes for residents. There is a need for more high quality research, particularly outside the USA.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found few studies, and all were in the USA. Although the results are potentially promising, high quality trials of palliative care service delivery interventions which assess outcomes for residents are needed, particularly outside the USA. These should focus on measuring standard outcomes, assessing cost-effectiveness, and reducing bias.

Read the full abstract...

Residents of nursing care homes for older people are highly likely to die there, making these places where palliative care is needed.


The primary objective was to determine effectiveness of multi-component palliative care service delivery interventions for residents of care homes for older people. The secondary objective was to describe the range and quality of outcome measures.

Search strategy: 

The grey literature and the following electronic databases were searched: Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness (all issue 1, 2010); MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, British Nursing Index, (1806 to February 2010), Science Citation Index Expanded & AMED (all to February 2010). Key journals were hand searched and a PubMed related articles link search was conducted on the final list of articles.

Selection criteria: 

We planned to include Randomised Clinical Trials (RCTs), Controlled Clinical Trials (CCTs), controlled before-and-after studies and interrupted time series studies of multi-component palliative care service delivery interventions for residents of care homes for older people. These usually include the assessment and management of physical, psychological and spiritual symptoms and advance care planning. We did not include individual components of palliative care, such as advance care planning.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed studies for inclusion, extracted data, and assessed quality and risk of bias. Meta analysis was not conducted due to heterogeneity of studies. The analysis comprised a structured narrative synthesis. Outcomes for residents and process of care measures were reported separately.

Main results: 

Two RCTs and one controlled before-and-after study were included (735 participants). All were conducted in the USA and had several potential sources of bias. Few outcomes for residents were assessed. One study reported higher satisfaction with care and the other found lower observed discomfort in residents with end-stage dementia. Two studies reported group differences on some process measures. Both reported higher referral to hospice services in their intervention group, one found fewer hospital admissions and days in hospital in the intervention group, the other found an increase in do-not-resuscitate orders and documented advance care plan discussions.