Though he praises such programs, one expert in end-of-life issues says the hospice industry and American society as a whole are far from ready for the aging baby boom generation. Unless caring for people at the end of life becomes a larger part of the national agenda, the rising tide of elders is bound to result in a flood of unmet needs, said Dr. Ira Byock, director of palliative medicine at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
He points out that while the number of people using hospice has grown, the average length of stay actually dipped slightly in 2010 compared with the previous year, raising concerns that providers aren’t reaching patients and their family caregivers in a timely manner.
‘‘We often quip that in hospice care these days, we’re doing brink-of-death care rather than end-of-life care,’’ Byock said.
When it comes to illness, dying, and death, the American mindset is ‘‘I don’t want to think about it.’’ But Byock hopes baby boomers will ‘‘take back’’ the end of life in the same way they took charge of the beginning by pushing for the natural childbirth movement and efforts to bring fathers into the delivery room.
‘‘It was driven by the boomers as citizens and consumers; it was an advocacy movement. A very similar thing needs to happen now,’’ he said.
Hospice workers say they are more ready than other health care providers to deal with baby boomers and whatever changes health care reform brings because they've been working with limited budgets for years.
‘‘We've been meeting that triple threat of providing better care with higher patient satisfaction for less money,’’ Stawasz said. ‘‘I think hospice is perhaps standing as a model for others as we are dealing with the challenges of the increased needs that baby boomers represent.’’
Laurie Farmer of the Concord Regional Visiting Nurse Association agrees. And she adds that hospice is all about providing individualized care, something that baby boomers likely will demand.
‘‘The baby boom generation comes as very educated consumers, and so we are feeling that we have been meeting that challenge,’’ she said.
At age 70, Liz Murphy, of Deerfield, N.H., is a few years older than the oldest baby boomers. But like many of the baby boomers served by the Concord hospice program, she did her homework before deciding several weeks ago to move into the program’s hospice house.
Murphy, a longtime Statehouse lobbyist, was found several years ago to have an extremely rare cancer of the connective tissue that settled mainly in her bones but also has spread to her brain, liver and other organs. She started considering hospice after a spate of surgeries just weeks apart resulted in no improvements.
Murphy said she knew where the hospice house was, but beyond that, knew little about it before she started looking into it. But once she did, she made her decision quickly.
‘‘I talked it through with my husband and my children and anybody else who I thought would have an interest in it, and I feel as though I got information from as many people as I needed. I came and looked at it, and I'm very happy with it,’’ she said.
‘‘It’s been great. I love the place. I've been very fortunate that the people who are here are people who are happy to work with me, and are interested in working together with my family, my husband and me to give us the program we’re interested in.’’
The latest installment in Aging America, the joint AP-APME project examining the aging of the baby boomers and its impact on society.