What Is Hospice Care?

Hospice care also is known as end-of-life care for good reason. You may want relief from pain, shortness of breath and other symptoms that are keeping you from focusing on the people and things you care about most.

Through word of mouth, most people equate hospice as the end of the line. You might think it means giving up. Your family may have heard that it means your medical team will withhold the care you need. But what does it really mean?

HospiceHospice means your nurses and doctors focus on the quality of your life instead of trying to cure a disease. Your team may include a social worker, counselor and chaplain. They work together to meet your physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

The hospice team works with your family and friends, too, offering counseling and help with such practical things as cleaning house and shopping.

Hospice programs are available when your doctor states you have a terminal illness and death is expected in six months or less. But you can walk out of hospice care if, say, your kidneys were failing and you didn't want dialysis, and then you change your mind and go back on treatments. Other times, people get better and quit the service.

You may have heard of palliative care and wonder how it's different from hospice. Palliative care serves anyone who is seriously ill, not just those who are dying and not seeking a cure. Some see palliative care as a resource for anyone living with a serious illness—heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD), cancer, dementia or Parkinson's disease.

Curative treatment is still ongoing. Palliative care can transition to hospice care if such treatment is no longer helping. You and your team may decide to place more emphasis on comfort care.

If hospice is the chosen alternative, you should know that there are four levels of care—and two of them actually occur at home:

  • Routine home care—nursing and home health aide services.
  • Continuous home care—continuous nursing care for crisis times.
  • General in-patient care—short-term care during times when pain and symptoms can't be managed without a hospital setting.
  • Respite care—short-term care in a facility during times when your caregiver needs a break.

You may want to stay where your friends and family can visit freely. This support network can help relieve the relative or friend serving as primary caregiver.

A big consideration is the main caregiver—is she or he physically and emotionally able to provide what's needed? Can that person afford to cut back on hours at work or leave a job? And what about supplies like a bedside commode or a wheelchair?

Giving such questions careful thought will help in any decision making for hospice, including what kind of hospice care is appropriate. Know your options, and make your loved ones and health care providers aware of your preferences so that it will be less likely that you'll die in a hospital receiving unwanted treatments. The goal of hospice is to provide comfort during the final months and days of life.

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