Over the last 25 years, the number of Americans turning to hospice for end-of-life care has climbed dramatically -- from 25,000 in 1982 to 1.45 million in 2008, as more and more people choose to spend their final days in the comfort of home or a patient facility with a home-like environment rather than in a hospital pursuing aggressive treatments.I have been involved with hospice twice now - once with my father several years ago, and recently with my mother-in-law who just died of pancreatic cancer.
There are many references out there about hospice, and for a general overview for those thinking about hospice for themselves or a loved one, I'd steer you toward this introduction (pdf), provided by the government. Through both processes I have had a chance to see several misconceptions about what hospice is and how it works for patients who elect to stay at home during their last days. I cannot speak to inpatient hospice services since my family members have not elected to use those resources. For those that might not have a lot of family around, inpatient hospice care is probably a better alternative.
In many ways, hospice brings together a team of support personnel: doctors, nurses, chaplains, social workers, etc. to support the patient and their families through this difficult process, but there are some preconceived ideas that might not be clear to those who elect to go the stay-at-home route:
- First, hospice is not the cavalry, swooping in to save you from the day to day challenges of caring for your loved one. They can mobilize the equipment, the 30-60 minute visits by their staff (I am unaware of doctors making house calls, but trained nurses assess the patient then relay the status to the treating doctor), or arrange for help bathing and dressing the person occasionally, but they will NOT be there 24/7/365 when things get tough to wipe their bottoms or give them their medications. They'll teach you how to do things, but at home, it's still up to the caregivers.
Not that this is all bad. There is something very therapeutic about reconnecting in such an intimate way with someone you love. Still, it's the constancy of this care, even in the middle of the night, can take it's toll and create intense exhaustion and depression in caregivers, particularly when there is only one caregiver performing these duties. But being at home affords other familiar touches that just aren't replicated in inpatient facilities. Probably the biggest smile we received from my mother-in-law was when be brought our therapy-dog cocker spaniel up on her bed (she loved that dog) - a no-no at most inpatient facilities.
- Medication revisions are more limited than I expected. It was interested to see family members acquire a regimented approach to medication administration at first. Through no fault of their own, it was not uncommon to observe that every medication was ultimately trying to be forced down the gullet of their loved one in attempt to be conscientious caregivers. No one unfamiliar with medical care and medicine rarely realize that perhaps many of those medications become superfluous during the dying process. No one wants to withhold care initially, we're trying to help! But as their loved one's renal and hepatic function decline during the dying process, doses of medications (particularly narcotics or steroids) might need to be reduced slightly to maintain a certain level of alertness or to avoid drug-induced delirium from complicating their loved-one's care. Not uncommonly, drugs previously thought critical to the well-being of their loved one suddenly become less so or completely unnecessary. Obviously, making these decisions is very tough for lay people when you're in the trenches of day-to-day care or when a loved one can no longer swallow. I found this was a source of considerable angst. Remembering to communicate with the hospice nurses during their visits or calling to ask about these issues can go a long way to allay any apprehensions and misgivings, should this occur.