What Is Hospice?

Hospice clinician and patient

Written by Amedisys

Many people ask, “What is hospice?” when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Hospice provides the type of care most people want as they near the end of their lives. And it’s 100% covered by Medicare for eligible patients. Yet more than half of people who are eligible for hospice care don’t receive it.

This is largely because many people don’t know what hospice is or how it can benefit them and their loved ones. So, what is hospice care?


What Hospice Is: The Hospice Definition

Hospice is supportive care that focuses on comfort and quality of life for patients with a terminal illness and a life expectancy of six months or less, as certified by a physician. People often choose hospice when they aren’t expected to recover from a terminal illness, or they no longer wish to pursue aggressive treatments. Hospice services include nursing care, home health aides, bereavement support and other types of care. These services are provided by an interdisciplinary team of nurses, home health aides, social workers and clergy.

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What Is Hospice Care at Home?

Hospice care is available wherever the patient calls home. This can be a private residence, or a facility such as a skilled nursing facility, assisted living, hospice center or hospital. Some patients prefer hospice home care since they can receive services in the comfort of their own home.

What Is the Purpose of Hospice?

The purposes of hospice include:

  • Helping patients live as well as possible, for as long as possible
  • Keeping patients comfortable during end-of-life
  • Maintaining the best quality of life possible for the patient
  • Supporting caregivers and loved ones as they grieve
  • Helping patients identify what is most important to them and maximizing their ability to do those things

Who Is Hospice for?

Hospice is for people with a terminal illness and a life expectancy of six months or less. Many hospice patients have conditions such as heart disease, cancer, COPD or dementia. A limited life expectancy doesn’t necessarily mean the patient will die within the next six months. It means a doctor has found there is a realistic possibility the patient will live six months or less. Patients who have a longer life expectancy or do not want to discontinue treatment to try to cure their illness may consider palliative care or home health care.

What Services Are Part of Hospice Care?

Hospice is a holistic approach that treats the whole person, addressing the patient’s medical, emotional, social and spiritual needs. Each patient’s hospice care plan is different, depending on their needs and what matters most to them. Some examples of hospice services include:

  • Nursing care
  • Help with bathing, dressing and grooming from a home health aide
  • Medications, medical supplies and equipment related to the hospice diagnosis
  • Physical, occupational, and speech therapy
  • Help with errands and companionship from a volunteer
  • Short-term inpatient care to manage pain and symptoms, if needed
  • Respite care
  • Dietary counseling
  • Bereavement support

Hospice helps family caregivers too. For example, the hospice team teaches caregivers how to provide day-to-day care. To ease the stress of caregiving, hospice offers respite care to give caregivers a break when needed. Hospice bereavement counselors continue to help loved ones through the grieving process after their loved one has passed.

Why Do People Choose Hospice?

Hospice care has several benefits. It helps keep people home, where they feel safest and most comfortable. The hospice care team includes professionals with a variety of skills who work together to meet the patient’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs. These professionals work with the patient’s primary doctor and focus on managing pain and other distressing symptoms. The goal is to provide comfort and better quality of life. Patients and caregivers can reach a member of the team 24 hours, seven days a week if needed.

When a patient is on hospice, their family or caregiver provides most of the day-to-day care. Hospice services include regular visits from nurses, hospice aides, social workers, chaplains and trained volunteers. This level of support can make it less likely the patient will have to go to the hospital.

Is Hospice Care Covered by Insurance?

Hospice costs are 100% covered by Medicare, Medicaid and many private insurance plans for eligible patients. Coverage includes professional services to manage symptoms and promote comfort. It also includes medications, medical equipment and supplies that are related to the terminal illness. Coverage does not include treatment or medications to cure the terminal illness, or room and board in a nursing home or hospice residential facility.

What Hospice Care Is Not

There are many myths about hospice care that prevent people from getting their needs and wishes met. It’s important to know what hospice is, but it’s also important to know what hospice is not. For example:

  • Hospice is not giving up hope or hastening death. Quite the opposite, hospice restores hope for a peaceful and meaningful last few months of life. It is about making the most of the time the person has left and keeping them as comfortable as possible. Many people use this time to build memories with family or find closure and peace.
  • Hospice care is not only for people in their last few days of life. Because people think hospice is for the final days of life, they wait too long to start care and end up receiving only a fraction of the benefits. Patients can receive hospice for at least six months. To get the most benefit from hospice, patients need at least two to three months. Longer is better. When they see how life changes with added support, most families say they wish they had known about hospice earlier.
  • Hospice is not a place. Hospice is a service. This means it can be provided wherever the patient calls home, whether that is a residence, a facility or a hospice center.
  • Hospice is not just for cancer patients. Some of the other common illnesses among people in hospice are heart failure, COPD, liver or renal failure, dementia or Alzheimer’s, and stroke.

Is Hospice Right for You?

This is a painful time and a difficult decision, but help is available. Ask your loved one’s doctor if hospice may be an option. You can also call an Amedisys hospice agency near you to learn more about hospice and get answers to your questions.

Many patients wish they had considered hospice sooner because of the improvements they see in quality of life and the support loved ones receive. Delaying hospice care keeps people from getting the greatest benefit of hospice services.

If you decide hospice may be right for your family, a doctor must determine the patient is eligible, meaning they have a life expectancy is six months or less if the illness runs its typical course. The patient can stay on hospice even if they live longer than six months, so long as they continue to meet eligibility criteria.

Take our quiz to find out if hospice care is right for you or your loved one.

Still asking, “What is hospice care?” Get more questions answered with our frequently asked questions.

Take the Amedisys hospice quiz to see if hospice would help your loved one.