- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

Health care is the No. 1 domestic issue in America. Our leaders must understand the importance of support for hospice programs — especially the funding from Medicare.

The two most recent presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, are baby boomers and according to a Scripps-Howard analysis, more than 55 percent of America’s current governors, state lawmakers and congressional representatives and senators are also boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. How end-of-life care is delivered and paid for is in the hands of the baby boomer generation, a group that makes up the majority of leadership in America.

Last month, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) held its 22nd Management and Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. Representatives from Rainbow Hospice and other organizations from across the country stressed good policy on the Hill for Medicare benefits for the elderly and the terminally ill who need care and support.

My baby boomer generation is aging and I already see the national focus transitioning to how we die in America. End-of-life care will be transformed by baby boomers. Yet the majority of Americans seem unaware of what hospice is and what it can provide a dying patient and the patient’s family.

Baby boomers are wealthier than any prior generation and we have different needs and greater expectations than our parents. We want to travel … we want health alternatives, health care, personal trainers, Pilates and the gym. People now know they are not going to die at age 70 and quality of a lengthier life is now in the forefront of their minds.

What does it mean for this new generation of Americans navigating end-of-life care options for their parents and ultimately for themselves?

When facing serious illness, many people learn there is much to hope and wish for in their lives. Hospice helps people achieve their goals and supports the family as they care for their loved one. A person on hospice may hope for comfort instead of cure, may hope for resolution with family members, may hope for a night out with the spouse, or an opportunity to participate in a family celebration. Hospice helps to convert all this hope to reality.

A very real advantage for hospice patients is the acute understanding of the limited time remaining and the support of an entire team, dedicated to adding life to the days they have left.

My organization, Rainbow Hospice, customizes the care for every single patient. We help people navigate through the turbulence of serious illness and prepare them as they plan and make choices. The need for overall education about hospice will be a key ingredient over the next 10 years as the need for care increases as one of history’s largest generations grows older.

The myths about hospice run deep: Do you really die sooner in hospice care? Is hospice only for people with cancer? Is it only available at a hospital and is it unaffordable? Here’s some clarification.

A recent research study showed many people actually live longer when receiving hospice care (Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, March 2007). Hospice seeks to neither hasten nor prolong death.

Nationally, cancer patients now represent less than half of those receiving hospice care. Hospice care is for any person who has a life-threatening or terminal illness.

Hospice care does not mean spending your final days in a hospital. Hospice is a philosophy of care and is brought to the patient and family wherever that may be. Hospice can be provided in an individual’s home, a nursing home, retirement community, a prison or a hospital. Some hospices may have inpatient units or a residence as optional care sites.

In some states, hospice is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and most private insurance companies. In cases when there is no insurance, many hospices have a sliding scale, self-pay rate or financial assistance programs. Sad to say, only one-third of all Medicare beneficiaries ever use their hospice benefit — which they paid for and deserve.

Elder care is fast becoming an important issue for the baby boomer work force across the United States as it tries to juggle work and caring for older family members. Now is the time to educate people about what care is available so we do not put the same strain on our children.

Patricia Ahern is president and executive director for the Chicago area Rainbow Hospice.

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