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Western becomes first university in U.S. to offer palliative care minor

Starting fall quarter the minor gives students a chance to learn about chronic illness, working with the elderly

Western’s main campus is adding a new palliative care minor starting fall quarter. // Photo by Sophia Galvez

By Sophia Galvez

Western is offering a palliative care minor starting fall quarter 2020. The minor is multidisciplinary with classes spanning sociology, anthropology and Western’s human services program. 

Palliative care is about making sure people are comfortable regardless of their medical condition, said Devyani Chandri, director of the Palliative Care Institute at Western. 

Palliative care is the care that helps people manage chronic illnesses throughout their lives, but especially toward the end of life, said Marie Eaton, the community champion for the Palliative Care Institute at Western. 

“Palliative care helps people manage symptoms as they get older and makes sure people are comfortable when they have chronic illnesses,” Eaton said.

The minor offered by Western is the first palliative care minor in the country, Chandri said.  

“The goal of the minor is to give students a basic idea of what palliative care is, as a lot of students have experience with death and dying or chronic illness, but have not had the opportunity to learn about this as a field because it has not been offered in a comprehensive set of courses,” Chandri said. 

Western is one of the few universities to offer any undergraduate training in palliative care, Eaton said. 

“It’s especially important because aging, death and dying have really been brought into the public conversation right now during COVID-19, so the minor itself is coming during a time when there is a lot of interest in these issues,” Chandri said.

Western has courses on aging, death and dying, but they are spread out across multiple majors, which makes it difficult for students to prepare themselves if they are interested in going into a specific graduate program or job in that direction, Chandri said. Previously, there was no program that brought all the classes together in a way that made it easy for students to walk out of Western prepared for a future job in palliative care. 

Eaton said palliative care itself is an interdisciplinary field; it has a psychosocial dimension that looks at individuals in the context of their mental state and social environment, as well as a medical dimension. She said it’s important to look at the big questions of what health means, what it means to live a healthy life and what it means from several different perspectives.

Palliative care is an interdisciplinary field, meaning many different fields of study are applicable Eaton said. 

“There are people who work with the elderly with all types of degrees,” Eaton said.  

Erin McAllister, a third-year student at Western and caregiver with Home Attendant Care, provides care for people who struggle to do things independently. 

“I don’t administer any medical care but I help people with mobility, basic needs and emotional support,” McAllister said. 

Unlike medical care, palliative care doesn’t always require a medical degree which means there are lots of degrees that can work with the minor, Eaton said. 

People want to be able to live independently, have their symptoms managed and not burden their family but the medical community tends to only focus on making sure people live longer, which is why palliative care is so necessary, Eaton said. 

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the elderly . . . it’s important for people to understand that you have to have patience with them because they also will get frustrated and it’s not coming from a place of maliciousness,” McAllister said. “It’s just really difficult when people can’t control their own lives anymore, so it’s important to try to be understanding.” 

Students looking to work in palliative care would work with the elderly or with people with long-term illnesses who don’t necessarily require medicine.  

“For anyone going into a helping or caring profession this sets them up well for the next degree or certificate they hope to pursue,” Eaton said.  

A palliative care minor could be beneficial for someone who is hoping to go into nursing, working with the elderly or who is simply interested in learning more about palliative care, Eaton said. 

“We haven’t really thought about taking this in the direction of a major, our goal is to supplement what is already offered,” Chandri said. 

The programs integrated into the minor include sociology, anthropology, health and community development, education and nursing, Chandri said. 

“I see this in conjunction with other things, I think it’s a very interesting companion to students that might be interested in a service or caring job,” Eaton said.  

Chandri said students should be able to go into spaces like nursing homes or degrees in nursing or medicine with emphasis on aging and feel prepared by the courses they have taken in the minor. 

“It’s really about learning how to give people emotional support,” McAllister said. “I have one patient that really opened up to me after I made an effort to talk to him each day because otherwise he was just by himself in his room.” 

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