Dying is very personal. Although everyone knows death is inevitable, it’s considered something way out there in the future until that fateful day when a physician says otherwise. Most folks hope that their parents, and they themselves, will die of old age quietly and suddenly in the middle of the night. Very few are lucky enough to do so. The worst scenario is dying a long, drawn-out, painful death in a hospital. Hospice care offers a welcome alternative.

Hospice care focuses on comfort and quality of life as opposed to treatment of the disease.  People are living longer than ever before. According to a Washington Times article by aging guru, Dr. Tom Perls, the life expectancy of Americans has jumped from 45 years in 1900 to 78.2 years in 2012. In addition, the number of individuals over 100 years of age living in the U.S. has doubled in the last 20 years and is projected to double again by 2020. This “graying of America” has resulted in a significant increase in both the number of individuals on Medicare and persons receiving hospice care. According to the Hospice Organization of America (HOA), Medicare-certified hospices served 1,054,722 Medicare patients in 2008 alone.

The History of Hospice Care in America

Hospice care got its start in 1972 when Elizabeth Kubler, author of “On Death and Dying,” testified before a U.S. Special Committee on the Aging which eventually led to 1994 legislation allowing federal funds to be used to support hospice programs. The country’s first hospice, The Connecticut Hospice, was funded by the National Cancer Institute that same year. In 1982, Congress added the hospice benefit to Medicare for patients with life expectancies of six months or less. Hospice Association of America statistics indicate that 31 hospices were participating in Medicare by 1984, a number that rose to 3,407 by 2010 with an additional 200 or so non-Medicare-affiliated hospice agencies.

Medical Professionals with a Unique Calling

The National Hospice Organization founded in 1978 described its mission as improving end-of-life care by expanding access to Hospice Care, which “profoundly enhances the quality of life for people dying in America and their loved ones.”  Hospice Care is based on interdisciplinary teams that develop individualized plans for medical, emotional and spiritual care that focuses on providing comfort, peace and a sense of dignity to terminally ill patients and their families. The teams generally include:

  • Medical Doctors
  • Registered Nurses
  • Physical, Occupational & Speech Therapists
  • Medical Social Workers
  • Psychological and Pastoral Counselors
  • Nurse Aides
  • Dieticians
  • Homemakers
  • Trained Volunteers

It is noted that a physician and/or nurse are on call 24 hours a day and that inpatient hospital care is always available if needed. Also, an important part of hospice care consists of support for caregivers as well as bereavement services for families following the death of their loved one.

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