This is the last installment in a series that Going Gentle Into That Good Night has presented to discuss, in clear, practical, and informative language, the on-going health care options in the home that are available for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
In the first post, “The Layperson’s Guide to Home Health Care for Our Loved Ones with Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease,” we discussed the home health care option.
In the second post, “The Layperson’s Guide to Palliative Care for Our Loved Ones with Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease,” we discussed the relatively-unknown and highly-underutilized option of palliative care, which all caregivers at home should have in place for their loved ones in the long journey between acute health crises and death.
In this post, we will discuss the hospice care option. I will talk about the requirements to be admitted to hospice care and what it means for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease in terms of the kind of care they can receive.
I will also discuss how hospice care works in a home setting (there is a hospital hospice option, but we will not discuss that in this post which is geared toward caregiving for our loved ones at home).
I will also walk you through the end-of-life process and how hospice is designed to support our loved ones and provide assistance to caregivers in the immediate aftermath of the death of our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
And, finally, I will frankly and honestly talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly that the hospice experience can be and I will provide you guidance on how to handle that at a time when mentally and emotionally this can be the toughest decision we make in caring for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Hospice care, in general, is available to our loved ones only when they are in the terminal (six months or less until death) stage of an illness.
The difference between hospice care and home health or palliative care is that while home health and palliative care are curative (treatment to stabilize and/or improve to extend life), hospice care is comfort (treatment to provide physical comfort while the terminal disease takes its natural course to death without intervention).
The requirements for admission to hospice care under a dementias/Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis are essentially that our loved ones have already knocked on death’s door and the door is slightly ajar:
Must exhibit two of the following:
- Ability to speak is limited to 6 words or fewer
- Ambulatory ability is lost
- Cannot sit up without assistance
- Loss of ability to smile
- Cannot hold up head
Must exhibit all of the following:
- Inability to ambulate independently
- Inability to dress unassisted
- Inability to bathe properly
- Incontinence of urine and stool
- Inability to speak or communicate meaningfully
Failure to thrive in the following areas:
- Progression of disease documented by symptoms or test results
- Decline in Karnofsky Performance Score
- Weight loss supported by decreasing albumin or cholesterol
Dependence in two or more of the following:
- Bathing and dressing
- Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) leading to inadequate nutritional intake or recurrent aspiration
- Increasing emergency visits, hospitalizations, or physician follow-ups related to their primary medical diagnosis
- A score of 6 or 7 in the Functional Assessment Staging Test (FAST) for dementia
- Progressive stage 3-4 pressure ulcers in spite of care
Because of the prevalence of comorbid diseases – such as heart disease, unmanageable high blood pressure/strokes, diabetes, and organ failure (kidney failure is quite common in these three diseases because they affect the kidneys directly either in the disease itself or in the treatment of the disease) – that exist, especially in our elderly loved ones, alongside of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, it is very likely that admission to hospice care will be for one of the comorbid diseases instead of because of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
In my mom’s case, we transitioned to hospice care under heart disease when Mama was having chest pain regularly. The palliative care nurse suggested that we go to the emergency room one morning when the pain was particularly acute and Mama said “No,” and I backed her up (Mama and I had, a few months earlier, according to her wishes, agreed on no more hospitals). Mama had the major heart attack that would, 12 days later, result in her death the following night of the day after she was admitted to hospice.
When our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are admitted to hospice care at home, several things are supposed to happen (I will talk later about researching and deciding on hospice care before you need it since you do not have to use the hospice care of the care agency providing home health and palliative care).
The first thing is that a comfort kit is overnighted to the home for administration when needed (and if a hospice nurse is not immediately available to provide the care). Included in the comfort kit are basics like liquid morphine (hospice will provide more if needed), mouth swabs (keeps saliva from collecting mouth and throat), and Atropine drops or Levsin (minimizes wet respiration).
Hospice also has a two-week supply of all medications that our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are taking specifically for the disease they are admitted under overnighted to the home.
A care team consisting of nurses, a social worker, a chaplain, volunteers to sit with our loved ones if we need to get groceries, and certified nurse assistants (CNAs) to help with daily hygiene care is also put in place to assist in supporting our loved ones and their families along the journey to death.
Our loved ones and we can chose which of these non-medical care team members to utilize. In Mama’s case, for example, we had a spiritual inner circle of longtime friends-who-were-family who provided, along with God, our sole spiritual support. We also took care of daily hygiene on our own.
Our experience was less than optimal in the other areas (including nursing until a home health nurse happened to fill in for the hospice nurse the last few days of Mama’s life).
In fact, our experience was so bad that I had decided to switch to another hospice care agency two days before Mama went into her death sleep (for my readers in the Tri-Cities, Tennessee, area, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details on the various hospice providers in the area and which one I was going to change to on the recommendation of home health nurses I trusted).
Nursing visits should be frequent, but will increase to daily as death for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease draws closer.
After death, the hospice nurse will be our first contact. They will notify the funeral home, clean up and dress (you can choose to assist or not in this process – I assisted with Mama because it was a way that I could show her respect and maintain her dignity) our loved ones, and take care of the paperwork for the death certificate.
After the funeral home picks up our loved ones, the hospice nurse will, with our assistance, document, dispose of and destroy all the medications provided by hospice, including any remaining comfort care medications.
Logic would seem to indicate that hospice care team members are sensitive, gentle, and supportive. However, in many cases, none of those things are true.
I did my homework on hospices before Mama needed hospice care. I asked friends of mine who were nurses involved in elderly care for their recommendations since they dealt with all the hospice agencies in the area.
However, one of the caveats I found is that hospice agencies can deal differently with medical professionals (i.e., better) than with family members of loved ones who are in need of hospice.
When I talked to the first hospice agency that had been recommended to me, the first words out of the director’s mouth, before I’d said much more than my name, were “We’re not a babysitting service!”
The nastiness in her tone and what she said took me totally aback. Even looking into hospice care as an option is emotionally and mentally tough because it means we realize that time for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is short and finite and we’ve accepted the reality of rapidly-approaching death.
Even though there’s a rational, logical, objective component in that realization, the emotional and mental component of wrapping our heads around it isn’t so cut and dry, and a little empathy, compassion, and gentleness in the recognition by a hospice care agency is not unreasonable to expect.
The reason is that the first contact we as caregivers and advocates for our loved ones make to a hospice care agency leaves an impression on us as to the kind of care that agency will provide for our loved ones. If they treat us badly, then it’s safe to assume that is the quality of care that our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease will receive.
I crossed the first hospice care agency off my list simply because of those first words out of the director’s mouth to me.
The hospice care agency that Mama and I ended up with was not the one I wanted because I’d had a similar bad first contact with its director. However, the hospice care unit was in the same provider that we had received home health care and were receiving palliative care from and the hospice care director showed up with the palliative care nurse on the day that Mama was having acute chest pains.
The director of hospice care said it was time to admit Mama to hospice for heart disease and I knew at that point that I didn’t have the luxury of time to get another hospice care agency lined up and on board, so I did what we needed to do for Mama, despite my strongly negative impression from my first meeting with the hospice care director.
For the first eight days Mama was under hospice care, she and I were pretty much on our own. The only real support we got was through a couple of phone calls to the 24/7 medical line.
It was not until a home health care nurse (I knew he was a home health care nurse and he confirmed it when I asked him – the night and day difference in care for Mama and support for me was that obvious) from the agency filled in for the hospice nurse who was finally supposed to visit Mama showed up four days before Mama died that I had any confidence that I had made the right decision by switching Mama to hospice care.
I share this personal experience because it’s not as unusual as you might think. I’ve heard similar stories from other people with other hospice care agencies in other parts of the United States and the world.
That’s why you need to know that, if our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease have a longer time frame to death than my mom had, you have the ability and the choice to fire a hospice agency that is not working, whatever the reason(s).
Hospice care is designed to be comfort care – and that includes good support for caregivers and the family – and if that is not the outcome for our loved ones and us, then that is unacceptable and we have the freedom to switch to an agency who does provide what a hospice care agency is supposed to.