When most people hear the word “hospice,” they typically think about the worst — the loss of a loved one.

Conversations surrounding end of life are ones that people usually don’t like to have, as it makes them uncomfortable, said Vanessa Hensley — the patient care and volunteer coordinator for Medi Home Health and Hospice in Boone. Death can be hard and stressful for families and patients, and that’s when hospice services come in to help alleviate that strain.

Both Hensley and Lisa Caviness — the public relations and marketing specialist at Caldwell Hospice and Palliative Care — said that studies show that patients live longer with the help of hospice. Both agencies help with the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of patients who are ill.

“It’s not about dying. Our care is about living,” Caviness said. “We want you to live the fullest life possible; the best quality no matter what quantity remains.”

November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month, which focuses on the specialized form of health care for people with serious and life-limiting illnesses, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

“At the center of hospice and palliative care is the belief that each of us has the right to live and die pain-free and with dignity, and that our families will receive the necessary support to allow us to do so,” stated NHPCO.

Medi Home has been serving Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties for more than 30 years, although it has operated in the past under different names. Medi Home serves under the umbrella of Medical Services of America. The agency operates with the help of Medical Director Mark Harter — who has served in the community for 40 years — as well as social workers, nurses, volunteers and a chaplain.

Medi Home’s palliative care services are offered under its Home Health program. Danielle Shook, Medi Home’s account executive, said the agency believes that if someone has a life-limiting illness, whether acute or chronic, the patient should have access to as many resources as possible. Through palliative care services, patients can receive nursing, speech/physical/occupational therapies, social work and aide services weekly.

To be considered for hospice care, a patient must be diagnosed with a terminal illness. These illnesses can be anything from Alzheimer’s/dementia, heart failure, COPD/lung disease, ALS/Parkinson’s, cancer/leukemia and kidney/liver failure, according to Shook.

Hensley said skilled nurses will routinely check on patients while monitoring their vitals and what medications they are taking. Nursing assistants can help with baths, light house work or patient grooming. Medi Home now offers music therapy when staff can play music with patients and help them write songs. Hensley said music can be used to help with patient agitation for those who may have dementia or other illnesses.

Social workers with Medi Home can help patients with items like filing advanced directives or funeral arrangement forms. Volunteers can offer respite services to allow caregivers the ability to run errands or other tasks.

Hensley said in her role she sits with patients and just talks to them about topics such as what career path they had, where they grew up and things they’ve accomplished.

“They give more to me than I could ever give to them,” Hensley said.

Dawn Ward is a nurse at Watauga Medical Center and has used hospice services twice in the last few years from Medi Home. Ward lost her brother, Johnny Poss, in May 2018 after he was exposed to Agent Orange and developed cancer. Ward said her brother declined fast, and was only with hospice for a month and a half.

Ward’s mother, Pat Poss, died in February of this year after battling COPD, and received hospice services for two days.

While each of her family members were with hospice for a short period of time, she said she couldn’t express how amazing the hospice workers were with her loved ones. She said Medi Home made her loved ones feel comfortable and cared for. Ward said she has often referred people to Medi Home for hospice services.

“It was so reassuring having the same people and same care help me through a really hard time,” Ward said. “I wouldn’t have wanted anybody else to be in there. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Medi Home does not offer a hospice housing unit, but rather meets people in their home or senior care facility. The agency can come evaluate anyone for hospice services, and inquiries can be made to Medi Home at (828) 265-3388.

Opening in 1982, Caldwell Hospice is a nonprofit that started offering services in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties in 2014. It was the first hospice agency to offer a free standing in-patient care unit. The agency averages about 250 people a day, according to Caviness.

It has two patient care units with one in Lenoir and one in Hudson, and it helps patients who may have a pain crisis who can’t get it under control at home or who need respite care. With respite care, patients can stay for up to five days every 30 days. Those who need residential care, who may not have a caregiver at home, can stay in the unit in a residential capacity, Caviness said.

Caldwell Hospice also offers a palliative medicine program as a clinical collaboration with Appalachian Regional Healthcare System for those living with serious illnesses and chronic issues. Caviness said this program helps prevent frequent hospitalizations, navigate complex care situations and adds an extra layer of support for the patient.

Hospice patients are typically those with a medical diagnosis of six months or less of life, and each patient is given their own personal care team that develops a plan of care that meets that patient’s specific needs. Hospice services can help patients maintain independence and make personal decisions about their illness or disease, organize personal affairs, participate in spiritual services and spend time with loved ones.

Through these services, Caldwell Hospice can offer resources for cardiac care, pulmonary care, dementia care in addition to various physical and emotional therapies. It also provides services for veterans. Additionally, Caldwell Hospice offers a resource called Legacy Project life stories. The agency will transcribe, video record or audio record stories or messages patients may want to leave for family members.

Caviness recalled a time several years ago when a young mother was in hospice care with the goal of living through her son’s first birthday. She wanted her son to remember her after she died, so Caldwell Hospice video recorded her reading her favorite stories for him.

“There were a lot of tears,” Caviness said. “It was rough for us all.”

Both Medi Home and Caldwell Hospice provide support for families after the death of a loved one — both can offer bereavement services for those in the community whether they were a patient with them or not. Caldwell Hospice offers grief support for up to 13 months after the death of a patient. 

Caviness said some people see entering hospice as giving up hope, but hospice workers see the situation as redefining hope. She said it allows patients to take control of the things they can and determine how they want to live their last days.

“We want to disassociate the stigma that is related to hospice,” Shook said. “It is one of the only ways that an individual can drive their own health care and lay out their own plan of care. Hospice is there to support the patient and families’ decisions, not make them for them.”

For more information on Medi Home, visit www.msa-corp.com/companies/medihomehealthhospice.aspx. More information on Caldwell Hospice can be found at www.caldwellhospice.org.

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