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Hospice Care: Help For Families as Well as Patients

Updated on October 19, 2012

Terminal Illness Can Fracture Families: Hospice Can Help

When a family first learns that a loved one has a life limiting condition, the first reactions may be shock, fear, pain, and sympathy. Typically friends and relatives rally around and offer to help. However, the reality is that most people have jobs, families of their own, and time constraints. As times goes by, the crowd around a dying person can evaporate. This may leave just the immediate family to deal with overwhelming physical, emotional, and physical needs.

For a while it may be possible to coordinate these exhausting demands with other obligations, but often even the most loving parents, children, and spouses begin to resent one another, or even the dying person. This is where always affordable Hospice care helps patiens helps keep families from shattering.

What Hospice is and What it Does

The idea of hospice originated during World War II when Dame Cicely Saunders, an English nursing student, was strongly affected by the suffering she saw. Her experiences taught her that, during their final journey, people needed a way to relieve pain, maintain their dignity, as well as psychological and physical help to deal with death. After obtaining medical and social work degrees, Dame Saunders eventually created St. Christopher's Hospice, in London.

American hospice care was launched when Florence Wald, dean of Yale's Nursing School, heard Dame Saunders speak. Dean Wald went on to create Connecticut Hospice in 1974. This was the first hospice to offer home care. Currently more than 90% of hospice care is done at home.

Today hospice care is offered is virtually every community in the United States and in locations all over the world. Unlike hospitals, hospice does not focus on curing patients. Instead they offer the critical help needed to cope with end-of-life issues. Contacting hospice is an ideal first step for either terminal patients or their families, before the family begins to suffer under the stress. Some of the services hospice offers include:

  • Professional pain management
  • Physician consultations
  • Scheduled visits by hospice staff, including nurses
  • Providing supplies and medications, which can include special beds, medical appliances, and more
  • Support and guidance for the patient and family regarding the patient's medications, physical needs, and condition
  • Spiritual and emotional support for the patient and family, before and after the patient's death

Even the most loving, stable families may find themselves adrift when they have to meet the needs of a dying loved one. Just dealing with unfamiliar physical needs can be uncomfortable. When family members are worried about the patient not getting needed medications, or don't understand symptoms of the illness, the stress can become overwhelming. Hospice patients are assigned a team which evaluates individual situations, then puts a plan in place to assure the best interests of everyone concerned. Hospice staff provides professional help, while volunteers may run errands, keep patients company, or help coordinate arrangements for out-of-town relatives to visit the patient, among many other services.

Hospice Takes Away the Financial Strain

For those who are just getting to know the hospice organization, it would seem that the first-class care being offered is financially out of reach for the average person. Fortunately, this is not true, and is actually one of the most impressive benefits.

Typically hospice care is covered by Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans' Benefits, and private insurance. For those who don't have access to these benefits, patients may qualify for free or reduced cost care. Many communities fund hospice through donations or other resources, and do not bill patients if they cannot pay. The best way to find out what you or your family qualify for is to contact your local hospice.

Hospice vs a Hospital

Although terminally ill patients can receive excellent end-of-life care in both hospitals and hospice, there are several major differences which should be taken into consideration:


  • In the business of saving lives and tend to focus on finding a cure
  • Care for many types of patients - not specifically end-of-life
  • Are designed for medical efficiency
  • Can be very expensive
  • Only provide on-site care
  • Are focused on the patient's physical well-being


  • Is in the business of improving the quality of a terminal patient's life, not curing them
  • Is focused on terminal patients only
  • Provides in-home care
  • Focuses on the patients' and families' mental, emotional, and spiritual well being, as well as physical
  • Ensures high-qualify, affordable end-of-life care
  • Respects patients' end-of-life decisions

Why A Family Needs Hospice

The reasons why a dying person needs hospice care may seem obvious, but how a family can benefit may not be as clear. There are several reasons why families need hospice:

  • Hospice makes sure the family knows just what to expect as the patient's illness progresses.
  • Early hospice intervention helps ensure the patient is as comfortable as possible for as long as possible, which provides peace of mind for the family.
  • Families can benefit from talking with hospice staff about their concerns.
  • With hospice care, a family can improve everyone's overall quality of life during a loved one's final illness.
  • Hospice can remove many of the physical burdens which come with caring for a terminally ill patient.
  • Hospice staff can guide the patient and their family through the grieving process.
  • Families are saved the often astronomical costs of in-hospital care.
  • The patient can stay in familiar surroundings throughout their illness.
  • Some hospices offer facilities for patients whose families are not available to help care for them.

Essentially, hospice is not a place, it is a system of care designed to enhance the overall quality of life for terminally ill patients and their families. Hospice care may not be a good fit for a patient who chooses to stay in a hospital and try life-saving treatments until the end of life. However, for those who prefer palliative care and those who would enjoy spending their time surrounded by loved ones, hospice can help.

The burden of at-home care can be overwhelming, but hospice staff makes it manageable. They also respect the patient's wishes and work with families to ensure as positive an experience as possible.


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