Common Terms and Definitions

As you and your family embark upon the decisions necessary for your care, you may encounter a number of terms commonly used in health care service delivery.  In an effort to assist you in better understanding this terminology and your choices, some generally agreed upon definitions for those terms are listed below.

Advance Directives:

Advance directives are a patient’s formal or informal instructions regarding their expectations of care and their choice of treatment options in response to potential illnesses or conditions.  Please note that legal connotations may vary by jurisdiction and generally include a “Living Will.”

Alternative and/or Complementary Therapies:

Alternative or complementary therapies are terms often used to describe independent healing modalities outside the realm of conventional medical practice.  These include, but are not limited to, Reiki, Healing Touch, Palliative Massage, etc.


A caregiver is broadly defined as anyone who provides care.  Often, it is further broken down into two categories, formal caregivers and informal caregivers.

Formal caregivers are members of an organization and accountable to professional and organizational standards and norms of practice.  They may be professionals, support workers or volunteers.

Informal caregivers are not members of an organization.  They have no formal training.  They are not accountable to standards or norms of practice.  Often informal caregivers are family members of friends.


In general, the term family refers to those who are closest to the patient in knowledge and care and may include:

  • The biological family

  • The family of acquisition (related by marriage or contract)

  • he family of choice and friends(including pets)

It is the patient who defines who will be involved in his or her care and who will be present at their bedside.

Hospice Palliative Care:

The term ‘Hospice Palliative Care’ refers to care that provides physical, emotional, social, spiritual and practical support to people with life-threatening illnesses and to their loved ones.  Care teams include, but are not limited to, physicians, nurses, care aides, volunteers, spiritual counsellors, friends and family members.  Care may be provided in home, in residential care facilities, in residential hospices or in hospital.

Hospice palliative care is recognized as the program of care that makes a very difficult life passage both manageable and meaningful for people facing serious illness or death as well as their loved ones.

In view of Canada’s aging population and on-going health care reform, hospice palliative care is becoming an increasingly essential service to cope with the growing demand for compassionate, high quality and cost effective care at the end of life.


Illness is an absence of wellness due to a disease process, another condition or aging.  It can be further categorized as acute, chronic, advanced and life threatening.

An acute illness is one that is recent in onset and likely to be time limited, although, it can be life threatening.

A chronic illness is one that is likely to persist for months or years, and, with progression, may become life threatening.

A life threatening illness is likely to result in death in the near future.


A provider is the common terminology for a formal caregiver who is a member of an organization and who is accountable to defined norms of conduct and practice.  They may be professionals, support workers or volunteers.


A volunteer is a person who freely gives of his or her time, talent and energy. Volunteers are members of organizations and accountable to that organization’s standards of conduct and practice.