by Dr. Pat Hayes
Home is where my heart is. When I’m home, I’m comfortable. I get satisfaction out of sitting in my favorite chair, looking out the window at my backyard, even eating off the plates my wife picked out. I imagine if I were dealing with a terminal illness, little things like that would matter even more. Recent polls show that approximately 80 percent of Americans want to die at home, and I imagine their reasons are similar to mine.
But the statistics show that most Americans don’t actually die at home. In fact, only 20 percent have the privilege of taking their last breath in the comfort and familiarity of their home. There’s a big difference between what we want and what actually happens.
As a doctor, I saw patients and families wrestle with this dilemma. Often the patient ended up in the hospital, sometimes multiple times in the course of the illness, and the family and medical staff did all they could to keep the patient alive even past the point where curative treatments were an option. That frequently meant longer hospital stays and more extreme measures that made it difficult or impossible for the patient to return to their own home.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you want to die at home, begin telling your loved ones about this desire as early as possible—even before you have a life-threatening medical condition. The more you talk about your wishes, the more your loved ones will understand the importance you place on it. And there’s something else you can do—something that can have the greatest influence on whether you die at home or not. If you or your loved one should have a life-threatening illness, consider calling in hospice as soon as you are able. (Remember, Medicare and most insurance policies will pay for hospice once a physician has determined the patient has six months or less to live.) In Tompkins and Cortland Counties that means calling Hospicare.
Like all hospices, Hospicare uses a team approach. Along with a doctor whose specialty is end-of-life care, they provide specially trained nurses, home health aides, spiritual care experts, bereavement counselors and other healthcare experts. All of these highly trained professionals are focused on keeping the patient comfortable and helping their family members cope with this highly stressful situation. They not only know how to care for people in their own homes, they are dedicated to helping patients die there if that’s what the patient wants.
They are also experts at pain and symptom control. I’ve seen patients’ comfort improve considerably once they’re receiving hospice services. I’ve also seen their family members breathe sighs of relief as hospice team members ease the burden of care. Looking back on my patients who died at home, I can’t remember any situation where that decision turned out to be the wrong one.
Hospicare has a motto I always find uplifting: “It’s about how you live.” Dying at home surrounded by the people and things we love is one way to celebrate life all the way until the very end.
Pat Hayes, MD, is a retired physician from Cortland County. He serves on the board of directors for the Hospice Foundation of Cortland County and was the board president in 2015. He currently writes a monthly column with Jackie Swift on hospice for the Cortland Standard. This article first appeared in the February 4, 2017, issue of the Cortland Standard.