At its heart, hospice is the philosophy that death is a natural part of life that can be experienced with dignity. In practice, hospice emphasizes the palliation of a dying person's physical symptoms and undertakes to help the patient actively manage the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of the dying process.
Hospice care for the terminally ill takes place in a number of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, in-patient hospice centers, and personal residences. It typically begins after a patient has been diagnosed as having six months or fewer to live. Although many hospice patients have cancer, hospice programs are open to patients with all types of incurable illnesses.Not all people with a life-limiting illness choose to enter a hospice program. It is a highly personal decision, and by law cannot be forced upon anyone. If you or a family member are entering the dying process, there are a number of situations in which you might wish to consider hospice care.
Many patients and their families consider hospice for the first time when a health care provider (usually the one who is providing treatment during an illness) recommends it. In order for a patient to be accepted by a hospice program, he or she must be referred by a health care provider. If your care provider does not mention hospice, you can ask him or her about the option and request a referral.
This may seem like an obvious thing to say. After all, isn't dying always a challenge? But everyone's response to a shortened life span is different. Some people find it easy to move towards death with grace and acceptance, while others “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” in the words of Dylan Thomas.
If you or your family members find yourselves experiencing emotional breakdowns on a daily basis or serious communication crises, you will probably benefit greatly from the support that hospice offers. Additionally, if you are challenged by the need to provide or receive increasing amounts of physical care, hospice workers will offer respite care, allowing family and friends the recovery time they need.
People with few or unsupportive family members and friends often experience unbearable loneliness during the end of their lives. This loneliness is not an unavoidable part of the dying process. Hospice can provide a structured support system that helps patients recognize and manage their emotions. It can also offer a social network connecting patients with people on similar journeys, as well as specialized care providers.
“To die will be an awfully big adventure,” says J.M. Barrie's immortal Peter Pan. Yet those who are close to a dying person often hold them back from experiencing this “adventure” fully, because of their own grief and sense of loss.
Hospice offers patients diverse resources for living a spiritual life even as death approaches. Hospice as a concept is not linked with any particular religion, but patients can usually find programs that mirror or support their own spiritual beliefs and provide answers to the “big questions” that tend to arise at the end of life.
Whatever your reason for choosing hospice, remember that dying is an intensely personal process. A patient's physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs cannot be generalized or abstracted. A good hospice program will respond to the distinctive requirements of each situation and provide the individualized support that you and your family need.