Resources / Don’t Wait for Hospice

Don’t Wait for Hospice

Dr. Andrew Mayo

Chief Medical Officer


October 16, 2023

“I wish my loved one had discovered hospice care sooner.”
We often hear variations of this statement from families of the patients we serve. Although anyone with a life expectancy of six months or less may qualify for hospice, many individuals are not aware that they, or a loved one, are eligible to begin services. Hospice care represents a compassionate approach to end-of-life care that focuses on the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of both patients and their families. Rather than concentrating solely on medical treatment, hospice care aims to make the patient’s final days as comfortable and meaningful as possible, providing support to the entire family. One vital aspect of hospice care is timing. Starting hospice care early can have many benefits for patients and their families, offering not only comfort but also practical advantages in managing the patient’s condition.

Patient Benefits of Early Hospice

Choosing to begin hospice care as early as eligible in the course of a terminal illness can significantly improve the quality of life for patients. While hospice care is beneficial at any stage, starting sooner can provide positive effects in several ways.

  • Building Trusting Relationships with Caretakers: One of the cornerstones of hospice care is the bond formed between patients and their care team. Starting hospice care early gives patients more time to get to know their caretakers, from nurses to therapists to counselors. This familiarity can lead to deeper trust, allowing patients to express their concerns, wishes and fears more openly. Over time, these relationships can become a source of immense comfort and solace, making the hospice journey less isolating. The more a hospice care team knows a patient, the better they are able to meet their wishes about the end-of-life journey.
  • Proactive and Preventative Care: Early initiation of hospice care when eligible means that medical professionals can take a more proactive stance in managing symptoms. This not only involves addressing current discomforts but also anticipating potential challenges and implementing preventative measures. For instance, early interventions can stave off pain, manage breathlessness, or even prevent certain complications. This proactive approach ensures that patients maintain the highest possible quality of life for as long as possible.
  • Easier Management Before Conditions Deteriorate: It’s a well-understood medical principle that it’s easier to manage symptoms and conditions in their earlier stages. When hospice care begins while a patient’s condition is still relatively stable, interventions can be more effective and the patient’s comfort can be more readily maintained. Waiting until conditions have significantly worsened can make symptom management more challenging, potentially leading to unnecessary suffering. By starting hospice care earlier, there’s a greater chance of maintaining comfort and dignity throughout the illness.

Family Benefits of Early Hospice

Making the decision to start hospice care for a loved one is never easy. The very nature of hospice, focusing on comfort and quality of life rather than seeking curative treatment, often means confronting the reality of a terminal prognosis. This acknowledgment can be heart-wrenching and emotionally taxing. However, the benefits of hospice care are profound. Choosing to initiate this specialized care sooner rather than later can offer numerous advantages, not just for the patient but also for their families. Early enrollment in hospice care allows for a more proactive approach to symptom management, better utilization of available resources and a longer period of comprehensive support. For families, this decision can provide invaluable relief during one of life’s most challenging times, ensuring that their loved one is treated with dignity, compassion and expertise.

  • Reduced Burden of Caretaking: One of the most tangible benefits of initiating hospice care early is the relief it provides to family members who often shoulder the primary caregiving responsibilities. Hospice teams consist of medical professionals, counselors and trained volunteers who are equipped to handle the multifaceted needs of terminally ill patients. By entrusting their loved one’s care to these professionals, families can alleviate the heavy burden of daily care tasks, from medication management to symptom relief. This allows family members more quality time with their loved one, focusing on emotional connection and shared experiences rather than the stresses of caregiving.
  • Peace of Mind: Knowing that a loved one is receiving comprehensive, compassionate care tailored to their unique needs can offer immense peace of mind to families. With hospice care, there’s an assurance that pain and symptoms are being managed proactively and that the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs are also being addressed. This holistic approach to care can significantly reduce the anxiety and uncertainty that families often grapple with when managing a terminal illness on their own.
  • Early Access to Education and Resources: Hospice care is not just about providing medical support; it’s also about equipping families with the knowledge and tools they need to navigate the complexities of terminal illness. By starting hospice care early, family caregivers have more time to receive valuable education on the nature of the illness, symptom management and end-of-life planning. Additionally, many hospice programs offer resources such as counseling, support groups and bereavement services. Accessing these resources earlier allows families to better cope with the emotional challenges ahead and prepares them for the grieving process.

Disadvantages of Waiting for Hospice

Hospice care is designed to provide specialized care and support to individuals in the final stages of a terminal illness, ensuring they live out their days as comfortably and meaningfully as possible. However, delaying the initiation of this care can have several unintended consequences.

  • Difficulty in Treating Symptoms: One of the primary roles of hospice is to manage and alleviate the symptoms associated with terminal illnesses. If someone waits too long to begin hospice care, the patient’s condition might deteriorate to a point where treating symptoms becomes significantly more challenging. In such cases, interventions that could have been more effective earlier on may not provide the desired relief, leading to unnecessary pain and discomfort for the patient.
  • Family Burnout: Caring for a terminally ill loved one is emotionally and physically taxing. Without the comprehensive support that hospice teams provide, family members often take on the role of primary caregivers. Over time, this can lead to burnout, characterized by emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. When families wait too long to initiate hospice care, they miss out on the respite and support services that can prevent this burnout, impairing their ability to care for their loved one and manage their own well-being.
  • Financial Implications:  While the decision to start hospice care is primarily a medical and emotional one, there are financial implications to consider. Ironically, refusing or delaying hospice care can sometimes be more costly than initiating it in a timely manner. Without the continuous oversight and symptom management provided by hospice teams, patients might require frequent hospital admissions or emergency interventions. These hospital visits, coupled with other medical interventions, can accumulate substantial costs, which might have been avoided or reduced with timely hospice care.

By understanding these complications, individuals and their families can make more informed decisions about when to begin hospice care, ensuring that they receive the most comprehensive and compassionate support during a challenging time. Early hospice care is not just a medical decision; it’s a compassionate choice that puts the needs of the patient and family first. By understanding the benefits and potential drawbacks of waiting, families can make informed decisions that honor their loved ones’ wishes and ensure a more peaceful and meaningful end-of-life experience. Don’t wait for hospice; embrace it by starting with a conversation.