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5 myths about hospice care

What do you want to do with the rest of your life?

That was not the question that Rusty Hammer expected to hear when he reluctantly agreed to meet with a hospice social worker. At age 55, Hammer had a rare, aggressive form of leukemia. He thought hospice was a place you go to die. He thought it meant giving up.

Misconceptions like these are all too common. Although 1.5 million Americans a year die in hospice care— 44 percent of all deaths— many people who could benefit never receive these services or enroll too late because of fears and myths about what hospice is and does.

My new book, Changing the Way We Die, co-authored by Sheila Himmel, lifts hospice out of the shadows. We explore its compassionate, holistic approach to end-of-life care through the stories of real patients like Rusty Hammer, their families and their doctors. At its best, hospice is more than a way to relieve the suffering of dying — it is a way to live.

Here we debunk the most common myths about this vital service:

Myth: Hospice is a place — and not a place you’d ever want to go.
Truth: Hospice is a philosophy and a set of practices focused on comforting patients, supporting families and helping people live as fully as possible in the time they have left. Hospice programs are available in many hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities but nearly half of hospice patients are cared for in their own homes.

Myth: Hospice means there’s nothing more that doctors can do for you.
Truth: Hospice physicians are experts in pain management, symptom control and other techniques to relieve suffering. The hospice team also includes nurses, aides, a social worker, a spiritual care provider and often, volunteers.

Myth: Hospice is only for cancer patients.
Truth: That was the case when hospice started 40 years ago, but today more than half of hospice patients have Alzheimer’s disease, congestive heart failure, end-stage chronic diseases and other illnesses.

Myth: Hospice is for the very last weeks or days of life.
Truth: Under Medicare, Medicaid and most private health insurance, hospice is available to patients with a terminal illness and a life expectancy of six months. If patients outlive that they can often stay on hospice care or go off and come back when they need it. People sometimes live longer than expected because they get such good comfort care by a team of professionals who view the patient as a person, not as a disease.

Myth: Hospice helps you die.
Truth: Hospice can open time and space for emotional connection, spiritual growth or accomplishing a goal. And it did for Rusty Hammer.

Hammer fought his leukemia long and hard. Over four and a half years, he took more than 250 medications, received more than 350 blood transfusions and spent nearly 600 nights in hospitals.  Once he stopped treatment and chose hospice care, he was able to reclaim his life. He spent his final months at home, in the company of lifelong friends and family. He explored his religious heritage. He even wrote a book to help other people deal with cancer.

What do you want to do with the rest of your life?

Fran Smith is an award-winning journalist, editor, communications consultant and co-author, with Sheila Himmel, of Changing the Way We Die: Compassionate End-of-Life Care and the Hospice Movement (Viva Editions). Fran and Sheila also write the popular Changing the Way We Die blog on Psychology Today.  For more information about the book, resources and the latest information on end-of-life care, visit their website