Embedding palliative care into homeless hostels in the UK
By Megan Armstrong, on 6 July 2021
“I’ve seen so many people die…so much of it over the last 19 years…And it’s [the project] invaluable. It should have been done years ago” – Hostel Staff member
In this month’s post, Dr Caroline Shulman and Dr Megan Armstrong discuss their work on embedding palliative specialists into homeless hostels across the UK.
People experiencing homelessness have a high rate of multi-morbidity, frailty and age-related conditions at a young age and are at high risk of dying young [1,2]. Previous work found people living in homeless hostels often had severe physical and mental health problems, often complicated by substance misuse, and despite the complexity of need they almost never have access to palliative care support . This lack of palliative care support is due to variety of reasons including hospices being unable to support those with addictions and mental health issues, uncertainty about when someone might be palliative, and hostel staff feeling uncomfortable about discussing palliative care . For many people experiencing homelessness, the hostel can be their preferred place of care as they often consider this to be the closest place they have to a home . The lack of palliative care support and appropriate places of care leads to hostel staff supporting very unwell people with complex needs.
Our project aimed to improve access to high quality care and support for people experiencing homelessness who have advanced ill health and to reduce the burden on frontline staff, by embedding training, support, and a multidisciplinary team approach into hostels . Palliative care nurses and social workers attended an intensive two-day training course into homeless issues. Free online training resources were shared (www.homelesspalliativecare.com); this includes tools that can support hostel staff to work with people with palliative care needs. Following training, we held a stakeholder event for homelessness, health, social care and addictions commissioners and providers. This resulted in useful connections being made between different organisations. Following this event, the palliative care staff spent 1-2 days per month in the hostels.
Palliative care staff trained and supported hostel staff to identify red flags, consider which residents they were concerned about who may benefit from a multidisciplinary approach and supported them to involve other members of the multidisciplinary team in the care of their residents. Hostel staff felt much more confident and empowered to approach other agencies as a result of the project.
“I think everyone is just a little bit braver now, to step forward and [to outside agencies] be like, actually, this is how it is supposed to be. You’re not supposed to be telling us that.” – Hostel staff member
The palliative care teams also helped staff focus on a holistic person-centred approach, exploring what ‘living well’ means to someone. As a result of the support provided, hostel staff were happy to support someone who had a new advanced cancer diagnosis, to have a planned death within the hostel. This was the resident’s choice and prior to the project, this would not have been considered.
“Initially when we think that someone is going to die, we would have said “no,no,no, we need to move them on quickly, we don’t want them dying within the hostel” ..but then we started to change our way of thinking because of this…we did start saying, well yes this is his home” – Hostel staff member
There is a need to refocus how we support people experiencing homelessness with advanced ill health or complex health needs. Not everyone will recover so to work in a more person-centred way we need to explore what insights people have around their illness and explore what living well means to them. If recovery is not an option, the least we can do is support someone to have a dignified and respectful death.
- Rogans-Watson R, Shulman C, Lewer D, Armstrong M, & Hudson B. (2020). Premature frailty, geriatric conditions and multimorbidity among people experiencing homelessness: a cross-sectional observational study in a London hostel. Housing, Care and Support Vol 23 NO. 3/4 2020, pp. 77-91
- Aldridge RW, Story A, Hwang SW, et al. Morbidity and mortality in homeless individuals, prisoners, sex workers, and individuals with substance use disorders in high-income countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 2018;391:241–50.
- Shulman, C., Hudson, B. F., Low, J., Hewett, N., Daley, J., Kennedy, P., Brophy, N. & Stone, P. (2018). End-of-life care for homeless people: a qualitative analysis exploring the challenges to access and provision of palliative care. Palliative medicine, 32(1), 36-45.
- Hudson, B. F., Flemming, K., Shulman, C., & Candy, B. (2016). Challenges to access and provision of palliative care for people who are homeless: a systematic review of qualitative research. BMC palliative care, 15(1), 1-18.
- Armstrong, M., Shulman, C., Hudson, B., Brophy, N., Daley, J., Hewett, N., & Stone, P. (2021). The benefits and challenges of embedding specialist palliative care teams within homeless hostels to enhance support and learning: Perspectives from palliative care teams and hostel staff. Palliative Medicine, 02692163211006318.