What sets hospice care apart from hospital care? Hospice programs emphasize pain management and psychosocial counseling rather than reversal of disease. When doctor and patient agree that medical treatment no longer offers hope of a cure or of prolonging life significantly, a hospice program helps the patient live out his or her life as comfortably as possible.
Cancer patients make up about 85 percent of all hospice patients. Most are cared for at home by a team that includes physicians, nurses, social workers, clergy, volunteers and family members.
Every member of the team has an important role to play. Doctors and nurses provide medical assistance needed to make the patient more comfortable. Social workers help patients manage their financial and personal affairs, including funeral arrangements. Clergy members help patients and their families address the spiritual aspects of dying. Volunteers might look after the patient when family members aren’t available and provide assistance with such things as errands and meal preparation. Family members are taught to administer pain medication and provide personal care for their loved one.
Dispelling myths about cancer and pain is one of the hospice team’s most important jobs. Contrary to what many people believe, dying from cancer doesn’t have to be painful. In fact, pain relief is a central goal of hospice programs. The pain-relief system that they rely on includes a variety of drugs, from aspirin to powerful narcotics like morphine. Usually, pain medication is given to the patient round-the-clock at regular intervals. Whenever possible, pain medication is given in the form of pills to spare patients the discomfort of frequent injections.
Conditions such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, weight loss, bedsores, pneumonia and urinary-tract infections, which are common among terminally ill patients, are treated to make the patient more comfortable, not to prolong life.
A hospice program can’t accept a patient unless he or she has been certified terminally ill by a physician. Most patients come to the program when they have six months or less to live.
It’s important to understand that while hospice programs don’t attempt to lengthen life, neither do they attempt to shorten it. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization is on record as opposing euthanasia (mercy killing) and assisted suicide.
Choosing hospice care helps families cope with losing a loved one. When a patient dies, family members find comfort in the knowledge that they helped to make his or her last days as easy as possible.