For many seniors and their families, there comes a time when a doctor uses the term "hospice care" or "palliative care." These are both very serious terms and ones that come with a great deal of weight, a lot of stigma and some confusion. While these terms are unfortunately quite common, many people actually do not know the difference between hospice and palliative and actually use these terms interchangeably. However, in reality these two terms have very different meanings.
While no family ever wants to have to deal with an issue regarding palliative care or hospice care, it is still important to understand these terms and what they mean, should a doctor ever begin talking about these types of care with you. Understanding the similarities and the differences between hospice and palliative care can go a long way in helping any senior and their family better understand these serious health predicaments should they arise.
What is Hospice Care?
The first and most important piece of information to learn about hospice care is that this is not a term used to describe a place, it is a phrase used to describe a type of care. The word hospice actually comes from the word "hospitality" and it is rooted in the idea that death is a natural part of life and that individuals who are facing death should be able to pass on in a safe and comfortable environment with dignity.
When a doctor, caregiver or nursing home decides to place an individual on hospice care, they are changing their care philosophy to ensure that the patient has the physical, spiritual and emotional support they need during this difficult time.
Typically, individuals who are terminally ill and who are likely to pass away within six months are the individuals who are placed on hospice care. Typically, a six-month prognosis is all that is needed from insurance for an individual to qualify for hospice care. This type of care can be given at all different types of locations, with many individuals choosing to receive hospice care in the comfort of their own homes or in the home of a close family member.
Once someone qualifies for hospice care, typically there are several components to their overall care plan including:
- Coordinating an overall care plan.
- Managing pain and other symptoms.
- Assistance with daily care such as eating, bathing and dressing.
- Access to any needed medical supplies.
- Professional counseling for the patient and their family members.
- Caregiving assistance or respite care from the primary care providers.
- And more.
Ultimately, hospice care focuses on helping patients relieve their symptoms while providing these patients and their family with support during their final months.
How Does Hospice Care Differ From Palliative Care?
Hospice care is a very specific type of care, yet it is often used interchangeably with the term palliative care. While palliative care is similar to hospice, it is not the same thing. Palliative care is focused on individuals who are suffering from serious or chronic diseases. This type of care is designed to alleviate pain, treat symptoms and help patients be more independent. While hospice care is typically limited to individuals who have six months or less to live, palliative care can start at any time, including right at diagnosis.
While palliative care can be administered by a hospice organization there are some other major differences.
- With palliative care you can also receive curative treatments in an attempt to cure the illness at hand, while hospice treatments are aimed solely at relieving symptoms.
- Medicare pays all hospice charges for seniors while only some palliative treatments are covered.
- Medicaid covers all hospice charges in 47 states, while it only covers some palliative care treatments.
- Most private insurance plans come with hospice benefits, while there are no real palliative care packages available through most private insurers.
- The average life expectancy for someone in hospice care is a matter of months, while it is typically a matter of years for someone in palliative care.
Differences like this are very important when it comes to understanding what palliative care is and what it is not.
What is Palliative Care?
Palliative care, like hospice care, is a specific type of care, not necessarily care in a specific place, like nursing home care. The primary focus of palliative care is to provide individuals with relief from the symptoms they are experiencing while facing a serious illness. While this does mark end-of-life care for some individuals, it is not necessarily end of life care. Patients can start palliative care at any point during their illness, and people can come off of palliative care if their condition improves.
Typically, there is an entire team standing behind a patient receiving palliative care. This team often includes doctors, social workers, therapists, specialists and nurses. They will focus on relieving pain and helping with other coordinating issues such as fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, trouble sleeping and even loss of appetite. Some patients simply receive this type of care to manage their symptoms while they let the illness take its course. Others will receive palliative care while pursuing other treatments that are attempting to cure the illness involved.
Many seniors today will start receiving palliative care after a serious illness diagnosis. This can be an illness such as Alzheimer's, kidney disease, congestive heart failure, Parkinson's, cancer or other similar serious and life-threatening illnesses. Just because a senior has one of these illnesses and decides to start palliative care, it does not mean they are going to pass away any time soon.
Whether you are or a loved one is told that you may need hospice care or palliative care, it is important to understand what each of these terms mean and what they entail. While it may be an overwhelming term to hear, understanding each form of care can only help families make rational and well-informed decisions during this difficult time.