Can a Person With Alzheimer's Benefit From Hospice Care?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Can a person with Alzheimer's benefit from hospice care?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

Yes, hospice care is a good fit for many Alzheimer's patients who want physical symptoms controlled and as much spiritual and emotional support as possible.

And now you'll find that hospice is more accessible for them. Recent guidelines for admitting Alzheimer's patients to hospice removed one of the former biggest hurdles: the stipulation that a doctor must certify that they have six months or less to live. For more on this, see At What Point Will Hospice Provide Care for Someone With Alzheimer's?.

So more middle- and late-stage Alzheimer's patients are receiving hospice as a supplement or substitute for other care they receive. In reality, some aspects of hospice care, such as the counseling usually offered to dying patients, may be of little use, for example in cases of those who've lost the ability to communicate with language.

But there are many components that may make hospice especially beneficial for patients with severe dementia. For example, by training and experience, hospice workers deliver more individual attention and are often more adept than many other medical providers in recognizing nonverbal symptoms of pain and anxiety -- and that may be especially important for a cognitively impaired patient who can't express discomfort in the usual ways. In fact, researchers have found that Alzheimer's patients given conventional medical treatment endure more pain than necessary because they often can't express themselves with words.

Other unique features of hospice care that have been shown to help Alzheimer's patients include:

  • Pet therapy. Visits with small, calm animals can provide comfort and reassurance while increasing pain tolerance, reducing stress, and lowering blood pressure.

  • Music therapy. Music has been shown to be very powerful in helping evoke long-forgotten memories.

  • One-on-one visits. Friendly faces and voices can be calmly reassuring, even to those who can't comprehend what they're seeing and hearing.

Hospice can also be a help to caregivers, who are most often ignored by traditional medical care providers. Most hospice providers offer respite, allowing caregivers time off to refresh and take care of other needs. Hospice programs also offer education about how to deal with common difficult behaviors, as well as the benefits and disadvantages of particular types of end-of-life care. Furthermore, hospice offers spiritual and grief counseling for patients and caregivers who are interested in it.

Finally, hospice can help both patients and caregivers by providing needed supplies, such as shower chairs, bedside commodes, wheelchairs, devices to lift the patient out of bed, hospital beds, and supplies for the incontinent.

For more details on hospice, see the article What Is Hospice Care?.