Last week a lovely young woman quietly entered my father’s room at the nursing home and asked if he was ready for his massage. He smiled up at her from his bed and said, “sure.” Then added, “if it doesn’t cost too much.”
This massage – and any others that he’ll get each week – are free to him. A free massage? How does that work? In this case, the massage is paid for by Medicare as part of the hospice services my father now receives as he approaches the end of his life. It’s one of the many benefits offered by hospice, an amazing service that I believe everyone should take advantage of as they prepare to leave this earth.
I’m a hospice believer. I have been ever since I started doing PR for Providence Hospice of Seattle more than a decade ago and I’ve seen the amazing benefits people at the end of their lives get from hospice. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization defines hospice this way: “Considered the model for quality compassionate care for people facing a life-limiting illness, hospice provides expert medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support expressly tailored to the patient’s needs and wishes. Support is provided to the patient’s loved ones as well. Hospice focuses on caring, not curing. In most cases, care is provided in the patient’s home but may also be provided in freestanding hospice centers, hospitals, nursing homes, and other long-term care facilities. Hospice services are available to patients with any terminal illness or of any age, religion, or race.”
In my work and as someone who has seen family members cared for by hospice, I have witnessed amazing compassion, caring and healing at a very difficult time in people’s lives. I’ve seen an estranged daughter reunited with her father. I’ve seen veterans honored in one last ceremony to mark their military service to this country. I’ve seen a young cancer patient comforted by a hospice therapy dog.
And I’ve seen the benefits of hospice in my own family. When my uncle was dying of congestive heart failure several years ago, he got to the point where the doctors recommended hospice care for him. Some family members objected, believing that this would mean he was “giving up” and wouldn’t get the care needed to continue to live. He was sent from the hospital to a hospice facility, where he was expected to die within a week. But, because of the amazing care he received there, he actually recovered! He got well enough to leave. While on hospice he received intensive nursing care, which allowed him to better manage his illness to a point where he was even able to travel to his winter home in Arizona. At that point he was literally kicked off of hospice care, as his condition improved so much that he no longer had a life expectancy of six months or less (needed to qualify for hospice care). We were told at the time that he’d likely be back. And sure enough, he was back eventually. He did die while on hospice care, back at the hospice facility – 18 months after he first received hospice services. I truly believe that the hospice care he received prolonged his life. And with that he got to spend more time with loved ones, travelled, and even saw a reconciliation between family members who before that didn’t get along.
My father started receiving hospice care two weeks ago. He doesn’t have any diseases. But at age 96 he’s what I call “terminally old.” He finally qualified for hospice care when he got pneumonia. I wondered how hospice could help since he’s already in a nursing home and has nurses buzzing around him 24/7. I was assured hospice would add additional services. And sure enough, he sees the hospice nurse at least once a week, the hospice social worker at least every two weeks, the hospice chaplain, a hospice volunteer, and the sweet massage therapist. Medicare pays for hospice care, so it doesn’t cost him (or anyone else who receives hospice care) a dime. The hospice team also is there for family members – to answer questions, offer advice, and to simply listen. They are as concerned with the family’s health as they are with the patient’s health, since we all know that dying isn’t easy for anyone.
But the hospice workers help us through it. After my uncle died, I asked one of the hospice nurses how she could do this very taxing job. She responded simply, that she felt like a midwife. Instead of helping usher a baby into this new world, she helps usher the dying into their new world – whatever that is. What a great statement. It will stick with me forever.