Staff perspectives on end-of-life care for people living with dementia in residential aged care homes

Staff perspectives on end-of-life care for people living with dementia in residential aged care homes

An article written by Madeleine Juhrmann

In Australia, more than 50% of people living in residential aged care homes (care homes) have a dementia diagnosis. [1] Dementia is the leading cause of death for women in Australia, and second leading cause for men. [1] People living with dementia can benefit from palliative approaches to care, especially those nearing end-of-life in care homes. [2,3] However, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has highlighted the significant variation in practice and availability of palliative care within care homes across Australia. [4] Integrating specialist palliative care capabilities into care homes has been proposed as one approach to address the end-of-life needs of residents living with dementia. [5] However, not all people with dementia in care homes will require specialist palliative care, and the generalist aged care workforce is well-placed to provide most of this care with adequate training and support systems in place. [6]

Previous research suggests clustered domestic residential care homes in Australia result in fewer hospitalisations and better quality of life for residents living with dementia. [7] However, a gap remains in the literature on the effect of domestic models of care for residents living with dementia and palliative care needs. Furthermore, little is known about the perspectives of managerial and frontline staff providing end-of-life care to residents living with dementia in care homes. [1,8]

Our recently published study reports staff perspectives on providing quality end-of-life care for people living with dementia in care homes and their families. We conducted focus groups and interviews with 56 participants across 14 care homes in two states. The participants included care workers, nurses, care home managers, volunteers, and pastoral care coordinators who care for residents living with dementia.

Participants reported a commitment to providing person-centred palliative and end-of-life care for people living with dementia, recognising the intrinsic value of each resident, regardless of their deteriorating state. Staff emphasised the importance of knowing the resident's preferences, tailoring care approaches to individual needs, and involving family members in decision-making processes.

The study also highlights the need for enhanced support and education for staff members. Recommendations include specialised training on dementia-specific palliative and end-of-life care, staff peer support programs, and fostering a supportive work environment.

Frontline and managerial staff also consider advance care planning, collectively working as part of a multidisciplinary team, and engaging families as other key priorities to providing high-quality care in care homes. Participants recommended harnessing the interpersonal skills of care workers, volunteers, and pastoral care workers with the clinical expertise of nurses and general practitioners to provide an optimal integrated approach to end-of-life care.

The study findings also suggest providing families with information and emotional support, proactive approaches to advance care planning, and timely engagement to ensure person-centred care at the end of life.

To build on the findings of this study, the paper provides a table of strategies to improve family education and participation, advance care planning, staff experience and education, and clinical approaches to care.

In support of some of the suggested strategies, the Advance Project Dementia is a new initiative that makes introducing end-of-life conversations and assessing the palliative care needs of people living with dementia easier. The project provides practical, evidence-based resources and training that empower aged and primary care professionals to initiate advance care planning and palliative care.

The study’s findings can help inform policy and practice in aged care homes and promote more person-centred care that is responsive to the needs and wishes of residents and their families.

Ethical Approval

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by the University of Sydney Human Research Ethics Committee (2018/744).

We thank the residential aged care staff for devoting their time, experiences, emotions, and thoughts to this study.


  1. 1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Dementia snapshot [Internet]. Canberra: AIHW; 2021.
  2. 2. Handley M, Parker D, Bunn F, Goodman C. A qualitative comparison of care home staff and palliative care specialists' experiences of providing end of life care to people living and dying with dementia in care homes in two countries: A focus group study. Palliat Med. 2022 Jan;36(1):114-123. doi: 10.1177/02692163211043374. Epub 2021 Sep 3.
  3. 3. Chu CP, Huang CY, Kuo CJ, Chen YY, Chen CT, Yang TW et al. Palliative care for nursing home patients with dementia: service evaluation and risk factors of mortality. BMC Palliat Care. 2020 Aug 12;19(1):122. doi: 10.1186/s12904-020-00627-9.
  4. 4. Pagone G, Briggs L. Royal Commission into aged care quality and safety final report: Care, Dignity and Respect. Canberra: Commonwealth Government of Australia; 2021.
  5. 5 Luckett T, Phillips J, Agar M, Virdun C, Green A, Davidson PM. Elements of effective palliative care models: a rapid review. BMC Health Serv Res. 2014 Mar 26;14:136. doi: 10.1186/1472-6963-14-136.
  6. 6. Parker D, Lewis J, Goury K. Palliative care and dementia (4.84MB pdf). Dementia Australia; 2018. 33 p. Report No.:43
  7. 7. Dyer SM, Liu E, Gnanamanickam ES, Milte R, Easton T, Harrison SL et al. Clustered domestic residential aged care in Australia: fewer hospitalisations and better quality of life. Med J Aust. 2018 Jun 4;208(10):433-438. doi: 10.5694/mja17.00861.
  8. 8. Borbasi JAL, Tong A, Ritchie A, Poulos CJ, Clayton JM. "A good death but there was all this tension around"- perspectives of residential managers on the experience of delivering end of life care for people living with dementia. BMC Geriatr. 2021 May 12;21(1):306. doi: 10.1186/s12877-021-02241-7.

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Madeleine Juhrmann
PhD Candidate and Research Assistant
The Palliative Centre, HammondCare



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The views and opinions expressed in Palliative Perspectives are those of the authors and are not necessarily supported by CareSearch, Flinders University and/or the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care.