When Jimmy Carter decided to embrace hospice care at his Georgia ranch earlier this year, it wasn't a resignation; it was a conscious choice to prioritize comfort and relish the joys of everyday moments. This decision, far from being perceived as "giving up," underscored a profound shift in understanding the purpose of hospice — a choice to savor life's richness during challenging times. Yet, many are still unaware of this transformative insight into hospice and palliative care, which could significantly enhance their ability to shape their lives during serious illness, according to Harvard experts.
Choosing hospice doesn't mean you're giving up getting medical care; it's focusing on comfort with the medical care you do receive, explains Dr. Carine Davila, a palliative care physician at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. This sentiment is echoed by Sarah Byrne-Martelli, a board-certified chaplain and bereavement coordinator, who emphasizes the importance of helping individuals envision the end of life as a time spent at home with loved ones, enjoying favorite shows and meals, rather than being confined to a hospital bed.
Understanding the nuances between palliative care and hospice is crucial. Palliative care extends support beyond end-of-life considerations, offering relief for those seriously ill at any stage. It acts as an extra layer of support for patients, families, and the healthcare teams involved. Conversely, hospice care is specifically tailored to enhance the comfort of individuals with serious illnesses, often extended to those with a prognosis of six months or less. However, many people, like President Carter, choose hospice even when the end of life may be further away.
Hospice care operates at two primary levels. "Routine" hospice care, applicable to most patients, involves a diverse team providing support at home with medication, medical equipment, nurse visits, and social and spiritual assistance. For those requiring continuous care, options include hospital-based hospice units, dedicated facilities, or nursing homes. The holistic approach of hospice encompasses physical, spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of pain, recognizing individuals as whole persons.
Research highlights the life-extending potential of palliative care, showcasing improved happiness, mobility, and symptom management. Despite these advances, aggressive medical care remains prevalent at life's end. The decision to opt for hospice care is not a failure; instead, it is an opportunity to empower individuals to prioritize their goals. Hospice teams engage with patients, supporting them in achieving aspirations, whether attending significant events or simply walking through a favorite path in the woods each day.
Navigating hospice decisions requires open conversations with the care team, inquiries about enrollment, and assessments of home layouts for necessary medical equipment. It's a process that should be considered sooner rather than later when faced with a prognosis of six months or less. The decision to explore hospice doesn't necessitate an immediate commitment; rather, individuals can meet with a hospice admission nurse to gather information and understand available services.
In essence, hospice and palliative care invite individuals to embrace life's final chapter with a focus on comfort, quality of life, and meaningful connections with loved ones. It's not about giving up but choosing to live on one's terms until the very end.