In the modern age, and thanks to technological and medical advances, the life expectancy of people across the world has shot up. Living into one’s sixties is no longer a miracle that is the exception to the rule, but has become the norm for most people.
The WHO estimates that one in six people will be 60 or older in 2030, with the elderly population increasing from 1 billion in 2020 to 2.1 billion in 2050. While we can expect further improvements in medicine and medical care over the next few years, it is safe to say that the pressure on and need for palliative care services is likely to increase as a growing elderly population reaches the stage in their lives when the need for hospice care arises.
In South Africa, the average life expectancy for men stands at 62,5 years, whilst women are expected to live up to 68,5 years. Our own elderly population consists of 5.43 million people out of a total population of 59.62 million, with this number expected to rise. The elderly population also makes up most of the mortalities in the country, as most causes of death are from non-communicable diseases like heart disease or strokes, which mostly manifest at later ages.
Palliative care is tasked with providing holistic care to patients that suffer from life-limiting illnesses. Many patients who receive palliative care suffer from diseases that are typically developed in old age, such as dementia, disability due to a stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Geriatric syndromes, so called because of the complex and multiple underlying factors that cause them (like frailty, falls and delirium, for example) may also lead to older people requiring assistance and care. We have already seen this trend abroad: In the US, just over 1.6 million patients received hospice care in 2019 – that number was 1.34 million in 2009.
Of course, palliative care is not only for older patients. Even so, a bigger elderly population will require more specialised medical care, and this includes palliative and hospice care.
The holistic and comprehensive nature of palliative care makes it a necessary option for people older than 60 who require medical care for a life-limiting illness, along with spiritual and emotional support for themselves and their families. As the years go by, we will all become older and frailer, which is why palliative care will become even more important in the future.