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What is Hospice Care?

When many people think of hospice care, they might incorrectly assume hospice care means it’s only for the elderly. Hospice care is an important aspect of medical care for anyone diagnosed with a terminal illness or those who are nearing the end of their life.

What is hospice care?

Hospice care is medical care that’s focused on providing pain management, symptom management, and comfort for patients who are terminally ill. A focus on end of life priorities (emotional and spiritual) is also included as the patients in hospice care have less than 6 months to live. Hospice care is not intended to cure or pursue all methods of surviving, it's intended to alleviate pain from those nearing their end of life.

The purpose of hospice care is to provide care for patients who are nearing the end of their lives. There are certain time limits regarding different levels of hospice care, but it’s important to note that hospice care can be entered into and exited multiple times. Depending on the hospice services you opt for, the organization can choose to prolong hospice care if a patient exceeds the initial 6 month timeline.

How does hospice work?

There are four levels to hospice care that certified providers have to provide, as mandated by Medicare. The way hospice works depends on the level of care the patient is at.

  • Routine Home Care - Generally includes a part time nurse or home health aides that visits the patient in the comfort of their own home.
  • Continuous Home Care - This level of care is still done in-home but is not on a part-time basis, the patient is usually experiencing higher levels of pain and requires care (by a nurse) for at least 8 out of 24 hours a day.
  • General Inpatient Care - This is provided in an inpatient setting as the level of care required has exceeded what’s possible in a home setting.
  • Respite Care - A temporary solution (five days max) for when the family or primary caregiver is in need of a break or is experiencing higher levels of stress.

The level of care provided and settings change as the levels increase, so it’s important to find out where along in the process you or a loved one is. These levels of care are often prescribed by the doctor you’re working with, so it’s important to discuss with them what the next best steps are.

When should hospice care be considered?

In general, hospice care is considered when your doctor or attending physician determines that hospice care is the next best step. If a patient has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is given less than 6 months to live, it’s also time to start looking into hospice care options. While your doctor will be the one to tell you to pursue hospice care, knowing the signs is helpful so that you can get an early start on researching your options. Some of the signs that you should be preparing for hospice care are:

  • Difficulty in taking care of themselves or performing everyday tasks

  • Frequent trips to the emergency room or urgent care

  • A desire to focus on quality of life and comfort instead of prolonging it

  • Severe pain, increased fatigue, loss of breath, loss of appetite

Who pays for hospice care?

Hospice care is paid for by government programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and The Veterans Health Administration. In many cases, hospice care is also an option on private health insurance depending on the insurance provider and plan benefits. It’s important to note that Medicare has specific requirements for eligibility which you can learn more about here. Additionally, there are nonprofit hospices that will cover the cost of hospice for those who are in their care. Search for these nonprofits and community hospices online or by contacting your local hospital to see if they have any information on them. If you’re providing care for someone in hospice or have become the primary caregiver and are struggling with expenses, it might be a good idea to start a memorial fundraiser to be ready for upcoming funeral expenses.

Is hospice care permanent?

You should generally start considering hospice care when you or someone you’re caring for has been given 6 months or less to live. Hospice care is focused on the patient’s comfort and alleviating pain rather than providing a treatment that’s intended to prolong their life or cure a disease they have. It’s important to note that you can always opt out of hospice care once you’ve signed up, it’s not necessary that a patient remain in hospice care if circumstances change. Even still, be sure to check with your physicians regarding checking out of hospice and what the next steps are to take before taking any concrete action.

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Last updated June 1, 2022
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