I’ll Think About Hospice Tomorrow!

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The 1967 re-release poster…

“Oh, I can’t think about this now! I’ll go crazy if I do! I’ll think about it tomorrow. But I must think about it. I must think about it. What is there to do? What is there that matters? Tara! Home. I’ll go home. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all . . . tomorrow is another day,” Scarlett O’Hara famously said in a tearful close-up at the end of 1939’s Gone With the Wind.

Then the music swelled, and soon the final credits rolled as—viewers may forever assume—the always-scheming Scarlett schemed to rebuild Tara and perhaps get Rhett back and, well, keep living like there were 10,000 tomorrows.

Ah, all those tomorrows! Which finally leads me to ask: what’s your excuse for avoiding hospice? Though hospice has been a Medicare benefit since 1982, it remains a stereotypical “blissful” subject for many. Isn’t ignorance . . . bliss?

  1. I’m not that sick. Go bother someone near death’s door!
  2. I’ll be better soon. I’ve always bounced back before.
  3. No one’s giving me any dopey drugs. I have stuff to do!
  4. If you mention death, I’ll probably start to die! So be quiet!
  5. Hospice is for those dying from cancer . . . I don’t have cancer!

A few weeks ago, during a lull in the morning patient care meeting, I glanced through the printed list of our current patients: when they entered hospice care; their primary doctor; the names of their case manager nurse, social worker, and chaplain. We also indicate a patient’s diagnosis.

How many continue to assume hospice is for cancer patients? Indeed, at the beginnings of the modern hospice movement, most probably were cancer patients. But it’s different now. My cursory scan included illnesses like COPD, alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, congestive heart failure, coronary atheroscierosis, paralysis agitans, multiple sclerosis, and dementia. And, yes, various cancers were on the list.

As a medical outsider, I’m often unsure about some diseases. For example, I didn’t know “paralysis agitans” was Parkinson’s. I’m familiar with certain fatal illnesses because they’ve been in the news. Since my father had dementia, I learned there were differences between Alzheimer’s, Lewy-Body Syndrome, and vascular dementia.

According to 2014 statistics from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association, a little over a third of hospice patients have some form of cancer:

Cancer – 36.5%

Other – 63.5%

  • Dementia – 15.2%
  • Heart disease – 13.4%
  • Lung disease – 9.9%
  • Other – 6.9%
  • Debility Unspecified – 5.4%
  • Stroke/Coma – 5.2%
  • Kidney disease – 3%
  • Liver – 2.1%
  • Non-ALS Motor Neuron – 1.8%
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – 0.4%
  • HIV/Aids – 0.2%

Not long after my quick inventory of patients’ illnesses, I met with a long-time hospice volunteer. She mentioned an upcoming visit with her grandfather to discuss hospice care. Her stubborn grandparent had apparently had been avoiding the subject with Excuse #5:

Hospice is for those dying from cancer . . . I don’t have cancer!

The volunteer and her family were dreading the, er, family chat.

While I could’ve told her about the 63.5% of patients who don’t have cancer, I doubted statistics would impress this cranky fellow. However, I did suggest that a hospice nurse could visit him at his home. The nurse could provide information and answer questions.

“Really, a nurse will come out to his home?” the volunteer asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“He’ll ask if they charge anything!”

“No charge.”

“Really?”

And I added, “He won’t be obligated to enter hospice care. The nurse will give an assessment, based on information from him, his doctors, and his current status. If he doesn’t feel ready for hospice, the nurse will walk away, but he and your family will know more.”

“Really?”

Really. Having a conversation like this with a dedicated hospice volunteer surprised me. Didn’t she already know this?

But we don’t. And I understand why some think hospice is just for cancer, or why others assume you have to be several breaths away from death to trigger Medicare’s benefits. As a guy with many excuses, I also understand why people put off decisions until (thank you, Scarlett) tomorrow.

Now at least one volunteer now knows she can have a no-obligation family chat with a grumpy grandparent. Maybe, or maybe not, he’ll be appropriate for hospice. Maybe, or maybe not, he’ll listen to a hospice nurse’s advice. Maybe, or maybe not, he’ll decide it’s time for comfort care rather than more attempts at a cure. Maybe, or maybe not, he’ll realize that even if he doesn’t have cancer, he shouldn’t ignore the difficult truth of his health concerns.

Who among us doesn’t have Scarlett O’Hara’s blood flowing through our obstinate veins? Maybe, tomorrow, if you’d like to, you could invite a hospice nurse to visit and discuss your, or your loved one’s, options. There’s no obligation and you’ll gain new insights.

What’s your excuse not to?

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image of 1967 poster from Wikipedia article on Gone With the Wind.

 

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