Shedding new light on hospice care: no need to wait for the ‘brink of death’

Although hospices now serve more than 1.4 million people a year, this specialized type of care, meant for people with six months or less to live, continues to evoke resistance, fear and misunderstanding.

A few weeks ago, Kathy Brandt’s 86-year-old mother was hospitalized in Florida after a fall. After rushing to her side, Brandt asked for a consult with a palliative-care nurse.

“I wanted someone to make sure my mother was on the right medications,” Brandt said.

For all her expertise — Brandt advises end-of-life organizations across the country — she was taken aback when the nurse suggested hospice care for her mother, who has advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease and a rapid, irregular heartbeat.

“I was like — really?” Brandt remembered saying, struggling with shock.

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It’s a common reaction. Although hospices now serve more than 1.4 million people a year, this specialized type of care, meant for people with six months or less to live, continues to evoke resistance, fear and misunderstanding.

“The biggest misperception about hospice is that it’s ‘brink-of-death care,’ ” said Patricia Mehnert, a longtime hospice nurse and interim chief executive officer of TRU Community Care, the first hospice in Colorado.

In fact, hospice care often makes a considerable difference for those with months to live. “When someone is further out from death, we can really focus on enhancing their quality of life,” said Rachel Behrendt, senior vice president of Hospice of the Valley, which serves the Phoenix metropolitan area.

New research confirms that hospice patients report better pain control, more satisfaction with their care and fewer deaths in the hospital or intensive-care units than other people with similarly short life expectancies.

What should seniors and their families, the largest users of hospice care, expect? It’s fairly well understood that patients forgo curative therapies in favor of comfort care when they enter hospice. Here are additional features:

Hospice providers are required to offer routine care in patients’ homes (this includes seniors who reside in assisted living or nursing homes); continuous care at home for people with out-of-control symptoms such as pain or breathing problems; inpatient respite for families that need a break from caring for a loved one; and general inpatient care for…

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