November is National Hospice month, and for many it is also the holiday season when extended families gather to celebrate.
These gatherings often include updates and discussions about caring for loved ones who are no longer able to care for themselves. This is when it is good to understand how hospice can help.
According to Stephanie Weatherly, who is registered nurse (RN) admissions and marketing manager for Ivy Creek Hospice of Wetumpka, the idea of hospice care carries with it a lot of misconceptions.
“A lot of people think you do not call people until someone is dying,” Weatherly said. “Hospice is intended to be a program for people who have typically six months to a year life expectancy.
"What winds up happening is people do not call a hospice provider until a loved one is on his or her deathbed. Then we do not have time to really do what we do on a daily basis which is to support the patient and the family."
Weatherly said hospice “is not about dying.”
“Hospice is about adding life to how ever much time a person has left,” Weatherly said. “We focus on quality of life and give the patients and families as much support as possible.”
Weatherly advised everyone to treat end of life like any other major milestone — by being informed and prepared.
“If you know what hospice offers ahead of time, it makes the decisions easier,” she said. “The process is less emotional and stressful on the family, especially if you’ve already made those decisions for yourself ahead of time.”
In 35-year-old RN Weatherly’s case, her husband and children are well aware of her desires in the event hospice care will be needed for her or her husband in the future.
“My living will is completed,” she said. “My husband knows what hospice offers. If I ever get a terminal illness, he knows exactly what I want and how I want it. Nobody is caught off guard.”
According to the American Cancer Society, when a person enters into hospice care a family member or close friend must be named as the patient’s primary caregiver and is the one to coordinate with the hospice team.
In most cases, a variety of healthcare professionals are involved in helping to manage the patient’s care based on each patient’s needs and preferences.
Typically the hospice doctor or medical director is in charge of the patient’s care, but a primary care or specialist doctor can be involved, too.
Doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors, dietitians, home health aides, clergy, therapists and trained volunteers work together to help the patient and primary caregiver make decisions about the care that’s needed.
The care can take place in one’s home, at an inpatient hospice, independent or hospital-based hospice and at nursing homes.
“Hospice offers a lot of services,” Weatherly said. “We are able to provide whatever medical equipment people need when they are leaving the hospital. Hospice can get things done a lot quicker than a person can. For instance, if I get a call today and we have a patient coming home from the hospital, we can get the patient set up with everything she needs today.”
Most health insurance policies offer hospice coverage, according to Weatherly. She advised everyone to review their specific coverage and be informed ahead of time.
“It typically does not matter what type of insurance a person has there is coverage,” she said. “Anybody with Medicare it is covered 100%. A lot of times it saves a family money. If a family member is at home and they do not have us, that family is buying diapers, pads, gloves; they have co-pays on medications and rentals on equipment.
"In most cases, hospice covers those charges. A lot of times families are saving money.”
Health insurance coverage can vary on what is and what is not covered.
Weatherly is a 10-year hospice veteran who said she got into the field because of her grandmother’s experience with liver cancer and the hospice team that cared for her.
“I’d only been nursing for a few years and my grandmother got the news that the liver cancer was getting no better,” she said. “Then they said the dreaded ‘H’ word — hospice. My thought was people were going to come in, take all her medicines and she would die.
“My thoughts were so far from the truth that it kind of stung when I realized how much hospice care does for patients. The support for my grandma and my family pulled us all together. If we had not used hospice, I think she would have passed earlier. We had her for another two years because of hospice.”