Tips and resources to help you throughout your caregiving journey

Hospice vs. palliative care: Knowing the difference

As a caregiving daughter or son of an elderly parent, there’s a chance you may have to think about hospice vs. palliative care at some point.

Hospice care and palliative care are two options when someone is experiencing a life-limiting or life-threatening illness. It’s easy to get the two mixed up, but it’s inaccurate to use the terms interchangeably. Hospice and palliative care share similarities, but they’re not exactly the same thing.

So what sets these two types of care apart from one another?

The major difference is this: Hospice care is designed for people who aren’t expected to recover from their condition, so it’s focused more on end-of-life care. Palliative care, on the other hand, isn’t exclusively for people who are dying. This type of care may be administered to someone who has a serious or even life-threatening condition but is expected to recover.

It’s important to understand that palliative care is almost always a component of hospice care, and can in fact be administered to someone who is considered terminally ill. It’s all about the patient’s needs in terms of physical and emotional or spiritual care, and whether or not they’re expected to recover from their condition.

Let’s take a closer look at hospice vs. palliative care so you and your parents have a good grasp on these options you may have to consider.

What is hospice care?

Hospice vs. palliative care: Senior man wearing a beanie

Hospice care is end-of-life care that is reserved for terminally ill patients. The goal is to ease pain and help the individual and their families prepare for the end of life. Hospice services can involve doctors, nurses, counselors, clergy, social workers, and family members who serve as caregivers.

Timing

Typically, hospice patients are expected to have six months or less to live. Someone in hospice has likely been informed by their doctor or health care professional that there is no curative treatment for their condition. That’s why the whole idea of hospice is to make the patient as comfortable as possible during their remaining time alive.

It’s also possible for provincial health plans, social agencies and societies, and other organizations to give assistance with the cost of hospice care. It would be wise to explore all of these options when it comes to paying for this type of end-of-life care.

Developing an advance care plan is a good way for your parent to be prepared long before a final decision has to be made in regards to end-of-life care. Check out our tips on starting the financial planning conversation if it’s time to discuss finances with your mom or dad.

Treatment

Hospice care often occurs at the patient’s own home, whether it’s a private residence, an apartment or room in an assisted living facility, or a room in a nursing home. It’s also possible for hospice care to occur at a hospital or a specialized center, depending on the needs of the person and the stage of illness.

The treatment itself can vary widely depending on what the patient needs. Again, the focus is largely on making the person comfortable — that might be accomplished through medication for pain management, day-to-day nursing care from a hospice nurse, and/or with the use of specialized equipment to deal with a particular disease or condition. The goal is to keep the patient’s quality of life as high as possible, for as long as possible.

What is palliative care?

Senior woman smiling

The aim of a palliative care program is to ease pain, provide medical treatment, and make a patient comfortable when they’re suffering from a serious illness. The patient may or may not be considered terminally ill. As mentioned above, palliative care can be part of a hospice program — but it doesn’t have to be.

As an example, a palliative care patient may suffer from a long-term problem like heart disease, lung disease, or some other very serious illness. A cancer patient could even receive palliative care. These individuals may need advanced medical care, but they don’t have to be deemed terminally ill. Or, if they are considered terminal, they might be a part of a hospice program and will receive palliative care as a part of that program.

As is the case with hospice care, palliative care services may be paid for by the patient’s insurance or with their own money. It’s also possible for certain organizations — cancer societies, social programs, etc. — to offer benefits for palliative care patients and help cover the costs. Help your mom or dad explore all the options in the area where they live.

Timing

One of the major differences between hospice vs. palliative care is in the timing.

Unlike hospice care, which focuses on the final six months or so of the patient’s life, palliative care services don’t have a particular time frame. This type of care will likely be administered while the patient is going through active treatment of their life-limiting illness. It can be received by the patient at any time, at any stage of illness.

Treatment

Palliative care teams consist of doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals. This type of care can be administered in the patient’s own home, or palliative care services can be rendered in a care facility, such as a hospital or a nursing home.

Palliative care isn’t given in place of the patient’s actual medical treatment — think of it as an addition or supplement to help the patient feel more comfortable. It consists of things like:

  • Pain management. Depending on the illness that the patient is suffering from, pain management techniques may be employed. Methods might include painkillers and other drugs, relaxation exercises or physical therapy, and techniques such as massage therapy.
  • Emotional, spiritual, and psychological support. Palliative care services also include support for the patient’s mental health and emotional well-being. This could include psychological and/or spiritual counseling.
  • Caregiver support. Palliative care also includes a focus on the family caregivers. This involves things like instructions on how to care for the ill family member and home support services to help with meal preparation, transportation, etc.

Remember: Palliative care is almost always included within hospice care. As such, these same components — pain management and symptom relief, emotional support, and support for caregivers like you — will be found in hospice programs as well.

Hospice vs. palliative care: Which type is right for your mom or dad?

So, what are the differences between hospice care and palliative care? And what’s the right choice for your mom or dad?

Hospice care focuses on providing care services to make a person as comfortable as possible during the final months of life, usually in the person’s home but sometimes in a hospital or medical facility. Palliative care consists of measures to help ease pain and increase comfort, either when the patient is suffering from a serious, life-limiting illness or when they are terminally ill. Palliative care can be administered on its own, or as a part of hospice care services.

Health care professionals will discuss the options with your parent and refer them to either hospice or palliative care. The right choice for your parent depends on their circumstances. If they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness and their life expectancy stands at six months or less, hospice care is appropriate. For those dealing with a serious illness that isn’t necessarily considered terminal, palliative care can be used on its own.

Have you had a parent in hospice care or in a palliative care program? We want to hear more about your experience.

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