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What You Need to Know About Dying at Home

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Jonathan Kirn via Getty Images
Jonathan Kirn via Getty Images

Co-authored by Paul Taylor, Personal Health Navigator at Sunnybrook.

QUESTION: I have prostate cancer for which I have been treated a long time. My doctors say that it has now spread to my bones, lungs and liver and that any new treatment isn't likely to work and will likely make me feel awful. It has taken awhile, but I now accept that I am dying, and I'd like to die at home. My wife is pretty healthy, but is small and not that strong. Both of our kids live in Vancouver. I worry that my wife and I may not get enough support at home to allow me to die there. What kind of support can I get at home when my time comes?

ANSWER: You may have a fair amount of help available to you -- or very little. It all depends on where you live.

Several recent studies have highlighted the uneven distribution of assistance. In fact, fewer than one in three people with chronic illnesses have access to high-quality end-of-life care, according to a report released in December 2014 by Health Quality Ontario, a provincial health-advisory agency.

Even so, you are smart to be checking into your options while you still have the physical and mental strength to do so. All too often people put off thinking about these issues and then are unable to have their final wishes carried out.

The act of dying ultimately becomes "a 24-hour-a-day process" and patients usually need increasing levels of care as they draw closer to the end, says Blair Henry, an Ethicist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, who previously worked in hospice care.

Ideally, a multi-disciplinary team of doctors, nurses, personal-care workers and others should be involved in your care. For some patients, their care providers make most of the arrangements for them, once they decide to die at home. However, other patients -- or their family members -- must play a more active role in the preparations.

Here is what you need to know:

Home Visits By a Physician

It is essential to have a doctor, or team of doctors, visit you at home on a fairly regular basis to keep tabs on your medical condition. "Someone needs to be providing oversight of your medical care," says Dr. Jeff Myers, co-chair of Sunnybrook's Quality Dying Initiative.

That role could be performed by your family doctor or family health team.

There are also palliative-care physicians with specialized training in pain and symptom management. Their expert knowledge comes in handy when trying to anticipate the needs of the terminally ill.

"The difference between providing palliative care at home, compared to in a facility or institution, is that you always need to be thinking what can happen in the next 24 to 48 hours," explains Dr. Russell Goldman, director of the Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

If a hospital patient takes a turn for the worse in the middle of the night, there is professional help nearby. But that's not the case for someone at home.

So doctors try to predict what medications and medical supplies might be needed at home based on their assessment of a patient's evolving medical condition.

Nursing Care and Personal Support

Help from nursing staff, personal-support workers, plus certain equipment and supplies are provided through your local Community Care Access Centre (CCAC).

Enrique Saenz, manager of the palliative program of the Toronto Central CCAC believes patients who want to die at home are generally well served by the Toronto Central CCAC because nursing staff receives specific training in palliative care. Toronto Central CCAC also works closely with other health-care providers, including palliative-care doctors at the Temmy Latner Centre and the Dorothy Ley Hospice, to help co-ordinate the patients' overall needs.

Support may start with a few home visits a week to provide bedside medical care or help with personal needs such as bathing. The service ramps up as the end draws near. In the final stages of dying, the Toronto Central CCAC offers up to a maximum of 56 hours of personal support per month.

Hospice Volunteers

Many community hospices have dedicated volunteers who provide in-home assistance to dying patients and their families.

"There are hospice organizations across Ontario," says Dena Maule, executive director of Hospice Toronto. "You can go to the website of Hospice Palliative Care Ontarioto locate which community hospice is in your area."

Volunteers can provide companionship and practical support such as grocery shopping and light-meal preparation -- freeing up family members so "they can focus on loved ones or build their resiliency."And during the time that patients are still mobile enough to leave the home, the volunteers can go with them to medical appointments.

They are also trained to perform palliative-care functions such as bedside care, medication reminders and comfort measures. What's more, hospices will help with bereavement and give emotional assistance to family members of all ages witnessing the death.

In the final stages of the illness, the hospice volunteers will provide an escalating level of support -- so long as the resources are available. Like all organizations, hospice groups have a limited number of volunteers -- while the demand for their services continues to grow.

Have a Plan B

Let's assume that everything works out and you have enough support to stay at home, you might still change your mind about where you want to be.

"The truth is, your choice can change as your illness progresses, depending on the severity of the symptoms and the measures that can be delivered in the home," says Ms. Maule.

For instance, "there can be complications that may make it necessary for a person to come into some kind of institution -- be it a residential hospice or even an acute-care hospital," says Dr. Myers.

So it's a good idea to have a back-up plan, adds Dr. Goodman. He encourages people to apply for a spot in a palliative-care unit of a hospital or a residential hospice just in case it's needed.

Ms. Maule says that the actual place where you die may be less relevant than how much time you spend at home before going into an institutional setting. "With proper support, a person may be able to have an extra month at home -- that, to me, is the quality indicator."

It can be quite challenging, but very rewarding, too.

A Good Death

Dr. Shelly Dev, a Sunnybrook critical-care physician, knows first hand what it's like to have a relative pass away at home.

When her father was first diagnosed with terminal cancer several years ago, he was living in an Ontario community that lacked in-home palliative care services. So Dr. Dev's father moved into her Toronto home for the final six weeks of his life. Dr. Dev's mother moved in as well so the entire family could be under one roof. There, he received regular visits from palliative-care doctors and daily nursing care.

Even with the assistance, it was still a lot of effort to care for her father. "We needed somebody there all the time," says Dr. Dev. "But it was worth it. The experience was certainly sad and heart-wrenching but also so precious and so amazing. All of our time together was uninterrupted quality, intimate time -- and that was very valuable," she adds.

Other relatives and friends were able to see her father in the privacy of her home. He could wear his own clothes rather than being in a hospital gown -- and that made a world of difference to him.

"I know he was content even though he was dying because we were always with him, always together," she says. "He was where he wanted to be -- he was so comfortable and felt so happy being surrounded by his family," she says.

The positive experience of her father's passing has changed the way Dr. Dev practises medicine. She now puts in extra effort to make sure terminally-ill patients are aware they may have the option of leaving the hospital and spending their final days at home.

Read more health tips from Sunnybrook medical experts at Your Health Matters