Why family members wait too long to call hospice

by Anne-Marie Botek

It can be difficult to admit that a loved one’s health has declined so much that pursuing further curative treatment is either impractical or impossible. Choosing comfort care is usually the next step, but many patients and their family members hesitate or second-guess themselves when this delicate decision arises. However, families can lose out on valuable time with terminally ill loved ones if they wait too long to seek hospice care.

According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, 27.8 percent of Medicare hospice patients received comfort care for a week or less in 2017, and a whopping 50 percent of this cohort received care for less than 25 days. While hospice care is meant for individuals with an estimated life expectancy of six months or less, the data suggest that families are not seeking this specialized care until the last minute.

“The full benefits of hospice care cannot be experienced in just a day or two,” explains Myles Zuckerman, MD, team physician at Family Hospice and Palliative Care in western Pennsylvania. “It makes me sad to get calls from family members who realize their loved one is dying within a few hours or days because they can’t make the most of the care provided.”

Of course, a reluctance to talk about and accept death is part of why hospice is seen by many as a last resort, but a lack of information and even misinformation about the services hospice provides also contributes to delays in care.

The Benefits of Hospice Care

Terminally ill individuals often experience pain as they approach the end of life. One of the most well-known goals of hospice care is to enhance a dying person’s quality of life by alleviating as much of this pain as possible. The sooner a senior receives a hospice referral, the sooner they are able to get relief from pain and other physical symptoms in lieu of curative treatment.

But hospice care encompasses far more than symptom management. Multidisciplinary hospice care teams consist of multiple professionals, including physicians, nurses, aides, social workers, psychologists, volunteers, musicians, therapists and spiritual counselors. This team works together to help patients and their families cope with the physical, spiritual and emotional aspects of dying.

This holistic care approach and focus on maintaining quality of life can make it possible for a senior to have more pain-free time to spend with their loved ones. Furthermore, hospice care can reduce the likelihood that a patient will spend their final months in and out of the hospital—a common scenario that proves to be very stressful, upsetting and expensive to patients and families alike.

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