Why Patients Live Longer With Hospice Care
Even though hospice care has been available in the U.S. for nearly 50 years there are still many misperceptions about hospice that are common in our society. One of the most unfortunate of these mistaken beliefs is that “hospice care hastens death.” In fact, studies have shown that patients who enroll in hospice actually live longer than those with similar illnesses who do not receive hospice care.
In my own experience as a hospice physician I have seen many patients who lived far longer than anyone expected once they began receiving the supportive services provided by our hospice team. In addition they also experienced an increased quality of living during those extra days of life. For example, one patient was expected to live just a few weeks but discovered a new love for creating pencil drawings and actually lived for an entire year after he started hospice care.
Clearly hospice care can provide the gift of extra days of life for those who choose to receive it during the course of their illness. But how is this unexpected outcome possible? Here are some of the reasons why hospice patients live longer:
They receive care at home
Most hospice patients are cared for wherever they live, whether in their own home or an assisted living or long-term care facility. Surrounded by the people and pets they love and the possessions they have cherished over a lifetime, patients are much more comfortable being at home than in a sterile hospital environment. In addition patients and families can set their own time schedules and “rules” at home rather than adhering to the necessary structure that exists in a hospital.
Patient comfort is a priority
One of the most important missions of every hospice team is to manage their patients’ symptoms so that they can be as comfortable as possible and the staff receives special training in order to acquire this expertise. Patients are freer to engage with their loved ones and find meaning in their last days when they are comfortable and their symptoms are well-managed.
There is a shift in focus
Many patients report feeling relieved and energized once they enter hospice care because they are no longer focused on receiving treatment. There are no more exhausting visits to clinics or treatment centers and no more side effects from aggressive medications. During their days in hospice care the emphasis is on living well as long as possible and the staff assists the patient and family in creating whatever experiences are meaningful and matter to each of them. There is time to talk, share stories, laugh together, express love, and complete some simple “bucket list” items.
They connect more deeply with loved ones
The hospice team is also trained to provide support to the patient’s caregivers at home. When families and friends come together to care for a loved one there are numerous opportunities for healing old issues, resolving past conflicts, and finding a deeper connection. While caregiving may be challenging, it is also a way to express love to the patient and can help soften the experience of grief later on.
There is time to find meaning
One of the most important tasks for people at the end of life is to discover the meaning of their own existence. It takes time to contemplate the path of one’s life and to complete the inner work of forgiveness, reconciliation, surrender, and gratitude. Patients who are cared for by those they love in familiar surroundings have the comfort, time and solitude needed for this work. In addition, the hospice team, which includes a social worker and chaplain, is well-trained to provide a listening presence and support this final journey of life.
Considering the fact that hospice care helps patients find comfort, dignity, connection with loved ones, laughter, meaning, and quality of life in their final days, it is not so surprising that hospice patients live longer than those who do not choose hospice. By enrolling in hospice earlier in the course of illness, patients and their loved ones can receive this remarkable gift of extra days to love one another and to cherish life itself. Remember this good news and share it far and wide when and if the need for the supportive care of hospice arises.