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Hospice care can ease a potential painful journey


In the Oct. 8, 2012, edition of the New York Times, there is an editorial on “How to Die” where columnist Bill Keller compares the British and United States’ ways of treating terminal illness. There are lots of articles and books on how death of a loved one ultimately touches a family, but there is really no easy guide book on how to help Daddy as he leaves this world.

My title is “counselor,” but when Daddy slowly declined from the ravages of old age, I was at a loss. Mama would ask, “What should we do?” I was afraid I would say something wrong or fail to do something that would hurt Daddy and Mama.

Fortunately, I knew that Medicare has a program that would help Daddy pass on with dignity and as painlessly as possible, while being a support to Mama by answering her questions even at 3 in the morning. The program that is available to all Medicare eligible persons is Hospice.

The following is taken from The Hospice Foundation of America website, hospicefoundation.org:

“Hospice is designed to provide support and comfort to a person with a terminal illness. Hospice care also extends comfort and support to the family. What is most important to understand is that ’Hospice care neither prolongs life nor hastens death é The goal of hospice care is to improve the quality of a patient’s last days by offering comfort and dignity. Hospice addresses all symptoms of a disease, with a special emphasis on controlling a patient’s pain and discomfort. Hospice deals with the emotional, social and spiritual impact of the disease on the patient and the patient’s family and friends.’”

Hospice benefits include the help of a nurse who monitors your loved one’s condition, will help get the necessary prescription drugs to ease pain, talk to the doctor on your behalf whenever there is a question, order a hospital bed, wheelchair, or other needed equipment all paid for by hospice and answer the scary questions about death and dying. There is a social worker who will visit with the family to help find needed resources. For example, the social worker will have a list of workers who can be employed to stay with the loved one 24 hours a day, if that is what is needed. Or the social worker can help the family find the right facility that will care for the loved one as she or he declines. Hospice provides limited services of a caregiver, who will come by two to three times a week to help your loved one bathe, change clothes, and change bed linens. There is also spiritual assistance, and the bereavement counseling continues for up to 13 months following death.

Some people believe that if a person is put on hospice, then the person would just be set aside and allowed to die. This is not accurate. When a person is put on hospice, there is a diagnosis of a terminal illness. For example, if a person had end-stage liver cancer with no viable treatment, the person could be put on hospice if the physician believed that the person would die within six months. There would be no treatment to try to cure the cancer under hospice care, but there would certainly be medications to keep the individual comfortable. And if the person developed a sore throat or had an infection from a cut, the person would certainly receive treatment for these ailments, along with the palliative care for the terminal illness. There is no penalty for not dying within the six-month period. And so long as the diagnosis remains terminal, a person can continue on hospice care indefinitely.

Hospice is an amazing benefit. And without hospice, it would have been a much more frightening and potentially painful journey, even for someone who counsels people about end-of-life issues.

Patricia Flora Sitchler is a certified elder law attorney and assists families in planning for disabled children. Patty is a resident of La Vernia and maintains offices in San Antonio as a shareholder in the firm of Schoenbaum, Curphy & Scanlan, P.C.

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