Hospices Offer Comfort at Life's End

It's a subject no one wants to think about, but for each of us, our lives must come to an end.

As medical progress helps us to live longer, the end can linger, draining patients and loved ones alike. So, more and more people are turning to hospice care.

Hospice is not just for the elderly or cancer patients. Children receive hospice care, as do patients with degenerative diseases like Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's disease, and HIV.

This holistic approach to the end of life treats pain and disease symptoms to make the patient as comfortable and functional as possible. Counseling helps patients and families come to terms with the process.

Hospice and health plans

Medicaid and most health plans cover hospice programs. A patient can enter hospice care when a health care provider determines that the patient has a life-threatening illness, and says that he or she has 6 months or less to live. The patient, family, and health care provider decide when hospice service should begin.

Although a person enters hospice with less than 6 months to live, hospice services don't automatically end at 6 months. Some people in hospice care live much longer. Insurance may or may not continue to provide hospice coverage after 6 months, as long as the patient's health care provider again puts in writing that the patient is terminally ill.

Team approach

Typically, a team of people treats the hospice patient. The team includes the patient's family members, and also a health care provider, a nurse, counselors, a social worker, pastoral care services, home health aides, and trained volunteers. The goal is to control pain and symptoms so that the patient is comfortable yet alert enough to make decisions. The team also helps the family through the grieving process.

Some hospices have a facility where people receive care in their final days. But most hospice programs bring health care providers, nurses, and other staff to patients' homes. Surveys show most Americans prefer it that way.

A hospice can give family caregivers a break through respite care. A trained caregiver will step in to allow family members some time off.

Even with these benefits, many people still have the misunderstanding that you come to hospice at the end of a person's life.

Instead of a person waiting until the very last moment to enter hospice, hospice staff recommend that families discuss end-of-life issues well in advance, while an ill person can still state his or her wishes.

Hospice also offers many support services for the patient and family. The relationship that develops with the hospice staff allows the care receivers to work through anticipated grieving as well as the planning of end-of-life issues. Patients express appreciation knowing that their family will not be left behind with no one to help them. Final preparations are made in partnership with the patient. The final days can then be spent on closure, knowing that everything has been done to help the patient through the shift to dying.

To learn more

To learn about hospice care in your area, check into these resources:

  • Health care providers, nurses, and other health care professionals

  • Social workers, clergy, and other counselors

  • Friends or neighbors who have dealt with hospice care

  • Internet search engines

  • Your local yellow pages

  • Local or state offices on aging or senior centers

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