A couple of times since I’ve been volunteering with hospice, I’ve said to people that they should consider hospice for an ailing loved one. Typically, the response is, “Well, I don’t think we’re there yet.” Doctors, as other volunteers told me just last night, often say the same thing. “We don’t want to give up just yet.”
But the idea that hospice is only for people who are days away from death is not correct. Hospice does indeed provide care for people with terminal illnesses. And to receive the Medicare benefit, a doctor must say that the patient has less than six months to live. But one in ten hospice patients do so well they leave the program. I spoke with one volunteer whose first three patients all got better! Unlike much of the medical care offered by doctors and hospitals, hospice cares for the person and the family. Often, in such a situation, this kind of care is incredibly healing. To receive this care, however, people need to give a hospice program the opportunity to do its work. And it takes more time than just a few days.
That’s why hospice can be incredibly beneficial to people who may not be on their deathbed but who do need to be thinking about the long-term direction of their care. Hospice isn’t where you go when you’re ready to give up. It’s the kind of care you need when the pursuit of a total cure is no longer or no longer welcome. Hospice is about more than administering morphine and offering a chaplain. Hospice is the care for a person, and their nurses and staff will direct care toward your goals–not necessarily toward your death. (However hospice’s expertise is end of life issues, and they’re incredibly valuable when the long-term progress of an illness is likely to be terminal–whether that will be in six months or longer.)
An example of this kind of care is Billy Gilliland. An alcoholic, he had cirrhosis of the liver. Billy had been drinking since he was eight. “”The doctors basically came in,” Gilliland said, “and told me, ‘you need hospice.'”
Five days a week, staffers from Woodland Hospice of Mt. Pleasant came to Gilliland’s home. Nurses, aides and the hospice chaplain traveled to his home, which he shares with his life partner, Stacie, to help him deal with his alcohol addiction as well as help him with his daily struggles at home.
“I know there were days when they came in my home to feed me, bath me, clean my house,” Gilliland said, “and I didn’t even remember them being there.”
Eventually, all of the hospice programs, except for bereavement care, came into play. In all, it took him nine months, but he improved.
“What Billy really needed was acceptance and support,” said Deanna Heath, executive director of Woodland Hospice.
After getting over his addiction and being released from the hospice program, Billy checked right back in–as a volunteer.