As a nurse at Willamette Valley Hospice, I often hear patients and families say, “I wish we’d known about hospice sooner” and “We could not have done this without you.”

Despite the many benefits of utilizing hospice care in the last six months of life, many patients only use hospice services for a short time. In fact, half of the patients we serve come to us in the last 18 days of their life or less – some only hours before their death. The sooner someone receives hospice care, the sooner a patient and their family can benefit from the expert services at their side. A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management even found that in certain illnesses, like congestive heart failure and some cancers, people that chose hospice care lived longer than those who did not. The hospice philosophy empowers patients and their families to live the final phase of life as they wish. Care encompasses far more than just the physical aspects of a person’s illness and is provided by a team of professionals, such as physicians, nurses, nursing assistants, social workers, spiritual counselors, and others. However, the most important members of the team are the patient and their family. Our focus is to optimize the patient’s comfort and help them maximize their quality of life.

One of the main reasons people don’t start hospice care sooner is fear: fear of death, fear of losing control, fear of medical costs, or simply fear of the unknown. Willamette Valley Hospice offers a wealth of information, expertise and experience, giving patients and families choices to make their own decisions. Anyone can call hospice themselves to see if they qualify, and most of the medications and equipment needed to treat the symptoms of a life-limiting illness are covered by insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid. In fact, Willamette Valley Hospice provides expert care and support to all, regardless of their ability to pay.

Some people might wait to start hospice care because they see it as “giving up hope.” When facing a life-limiting illness, hope often shifts from long-term goals to the here-and-now. Along with this shift in focus, many people describe a renewed sense of appreciation of life and its simple pleasures. They may find joy in a sunset or the chance to listen to a favorite piece of music. As we learn to live with dying, we are given the opportunity to become more fully alive in the present moment. Facing a life-limiting illness is never easy, but it can be done with grace and dignity.

I have found that my hope for our community is that fear doesn’t keep us from living our final months with the comfort and dignity we all deserve, and that people find the courage to ask about hospice.

Keith Seckel, is a registered nurse and Clinical Manager at Willamette Valley Hospice.