Hospice care: Comforting the terminally ill

Hospice care might be an option if you or a loved one has a terminal illness. Understand how hospice care works and how to select a program.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you or a loved one has a terminal illness and you've exhausted all treatment options, you might consider hospice care. Find out how hospice care works and how it can provide comfort and support to you or your loved one, as well as to your family and friends.

What is hospice care?

Hospice care is for people who are nearing the end of life. Hospice care services are provided by a team of health care professionals who maximize comfort for a person who is terminally ill by reducing pain and addressing physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs. To help families, hospice care also provides counseling, respite care and practical support.

Unlike other medical care, the focus of hospice care isn't to cure the underlying disease. The goal of hospice care is to support the highest quality of life possible for whatever time remains.

Who can benefit from hospice care?

Hospice care is for a terminally ill person who's expected to have six months or less to live. This doesn't mean that hospice care will be provided only for six months, however. Hospice care can be provided for as long as the person's doctor and hospice care team certify that the condition remains life-limiting.

Hospice care isn't just for people who have cancer. Many people who receive hospice care have cancer, while others have heart disease, dementia, kidney failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Enrolling in hospice care early helps patients live better and live longer. Hospice care decreases the burden on the family, decreases the family's likelihood of having a complicated bereavement and prepares family members for their loved one's death.

In addition, there is a unique benefit of hospice that allows a patient to be cared for at a facility for a period of time, not because the patient needs it, but because the family caregiver needs a rest in order to continue to care for his or her loved one. This is known as respite care.

Where is hospice care provided?

Most hospice care is provided at home — with a family member typically serving as the primary caregiver. However, hospice care is also available at hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and dedicated hospice facilities.

Keep in mind that no matter where hospice care is provided, sometimes it's necessary to be admitted to a hospital. For instance, if a symptom can't be adequately managed by the hospice care team in a home setting, a hospital stay might be needed.

Jan. 28, 2016 See more In-depth