Finding Care At the End of Life
Decades ago, most people died at home, but medical advances have changed that. Today, most Americans are in hospitals or nursing homes at the end of their lives. Some people enter the hospital to get treated for an illness. Some may already be living in a nursing home. Increasingly, people are choosing hospice care at the end of life.
There is no “right” place to die. And, of course, where we die is not usually something we get to decide. But, if given the choice, each person and/or his or her family should consider which type of care makes the most sense, where that kind of care can be provided, whether family and friends are available to help, and, of course, how they will manage the cost.
HOSPITALS AND NURSING HOMES
George is sixty-four and has a history of congestive heart failure. One night he is taken to the hospital with chest pain. George and those closest to him had previously decided that, no matter what, the doctor should try to do everything medically possible to extend George’s life. So, when George needed care, he went to a hospital, where doctors and nurses are available around-the-clock. Hospitals offer a full range of treatment choices, tests, and other medical care. If George’s heart continues to fail, the hospital intensive care unit (ICU) or coronary care unit (CCU) is right there. Although hospitals have rules, they can sometimes be flexible. If George’s doctor thinks he is not responding to treatment and is dying, the family can ask for relaxed visiting hours. If George’s family wants to bring personal items from home, they can ask the staff if there are space limitations or if disinfection is needed. Whether George is in the ICU, CCU, or a two-bed room, his family can ask for more privacy.
In a hospital setting, there is always medical staff available who know what needs to be done for someone who is dying. This can be very reassuring for that person, as well as for family and friends.
Who pays for care at the end of life?
How to pay for care at the end of life depends on the type and place of care and the kind of insurance. Medicare, Medicaid, private medical insurance, long-term care insurance, Veterans Health Administration (if VA-eligible), or the patient and his or her family are common sources of payment.
See To Learn More at the end of this section for links and telephone numbers for services that are Federal government programs.
More and more people are in nursing homes at the end of life. In a nursing home, nursing staff is also always present. A nursing home, sometimes called a skilled nursing facility, has advantages and disadvantages for end-of-life care. Unlike a hospital, a doctor is not in the nursing home all the time. But, plans for end-of-life care can be arranged ahead of time, so that when the time comes, care can be provided as needed without first consulting a doctor. If the dying person has lived in the facility for a while, the staff and family have probably already established a relationship. This can make the care feel more personalized than in a hospital. As in a hospital, privacy may be an issue. You can ask if arrangements can be made to give your family more time alone when needed.