Exploding the myths about hospice care

Written by Dr. Paul Mackarey, Health & Exercise Forum, The Scranton Times

CareGivers America Hospice-570-586-2222

Each November, the community of hospice and palliative care professionals celebrates National Hospice Month. Although, at first glance, spotlighting death and dying may seem a bit gloomy, it’s actually the concept of quality of life and the focus on living that is truly being celebrated.

It’s true that hospice serves patients and families who are on the journey of a serious or terminal illness. But as any hospice professional-from the nurse to the social worker to the volunteer to the pastoral counselor-will attest, the focus is always on the value of life being maintained and the quality of living for every patient.

Placing the focal point of hospice care on living, instead of dying, enables the patient and family to focus on:

  • Maintaining and expanding personal relationships
  • Reasonable exercise programs
  • Continuing religious and spiritual traditions
  • Quality time with friends and family members
  • Hobbies
  • Completion of photo albums, scrapbooks, diaries and legacies

Remember that your hospice team will make suggestions to improve your pain and symptoms, all with the ultimate goal of allowing you to live your life as fully and functionally as possible. Pain alleviation will allow for improved activities; help with personal care will conserve energy for visiting with family and friends; and allowing a volunteer into your home will give caregivers much-needed time for rest and relaxation.

There are a number of myths surrounding hospice care, and this is a good a time as ever to dispel them.

Myth 1

Hospice is for patients in the last days of their lives. Actually, hospice care was designed to care for patients and their families for the last six months of their lives. The longer patients are under the care of hospice professionals, the better their symptoms are controlled and the better their quality of living.

Myth 2

Pain medications are given in large doses to sedate the patient and hasten death. Pain medications are used in the smaller doses required to control pain and to maintain patients’ alertness, always focusing on the living life to the fullest. Medications are never given to hasten death, only to control pain and maintain quality of life.

Myth 3 

Once patients start hospice services, death will come soon. The statistics on this issue are interesting. In a major study, patients who received hospice care for congestive heart failure actually lived 29 days longer. Also, on average, 15 percent of hospice patients are discharged because of significant improvement in symptoms.

Myth 4

Patients receiving hospice services cannot leave the home or travel. The truth is that patients receiving hospice care can drive, travel, go to bingo, hair stylists, casinos-actually come and go as much as they are able to do so. The goal is to improve symptoms so patients can enjoy their lives as fully as possible while on the journey of a serious illness.  So, although the topic of death and dying as been rather taboo in our culture, hospice professionals celebrate the living potential that their patients still have. The focus is on the quality of relationships, maintaining a functional lifestyle and living the life they were meant to live. Hospice professionals also celebrate the many lives they have improved, all the lives they have touched and the fact that they were chosen to dedicate their professional lives to helping others live more fully.

To find out which hospices serve your community, call the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s help line, 800-658-8898, or visit www.caringinfo.org/findahospice.


RALPH DeMARIO, M.D., Hospice of the Sacred Heart chief medical officer, contributed to this column.

PAUL J. MACKAREY, P.T., D.H.Sc., O.C.S., is a doctor in health sciences specializing in orthopedic and sports physical therapy. He is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Commonwealth Medical College. His column appears every Monday. Email: drpmackarey@msn.com.