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Hospice care an advocate to more dementia patients

If predictions hold, the number of Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other dementias will rise from about 5.7 million this year to a startling 14 million by 2050. That sobering statistic heralds a dramatic showdown on the horizon. And if enough health-care professionals join in over the next three decades of reckoning, it’s likely hospice will be a key player in the escalating battle against dementia.

“I don’t remember a whole lot of hospice around when I started in health care some 40 years ago,” said Chris Simons, director of Dementia and Life Enrichment Services at Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids. “We just did our best. But since then, we’ve seen a cultural shift to include hospice care as a new standard for people living with dementia.”

Indeed, modern hospice care didn’t surface in the United States until about 1970. More and more, hospice is being embraced as a way to complement and enhance the traditional care dementia patients receive both at home and in assisted living facilities nationwide.

“In time, we’re helping people to understand that hospice isn’t just for people in the last days of life,” said Sara Lowe, executive director of Emmanuel Hospice. “It’s being utilized as part of a person’s overall holistic health-care plan, and that certainly applies to the millions affected by dementia.”


For Simons, that means allowing for hospice care as an integral player in the later stages of dementia care. In many cases, it only requires a referral from a physician qualified to consider how hospice can help offset the effects of dementia. Where Simons works at Clark, they regularly rely on hospice to provide alternative kinds of care, where traditional medicines can’t always venture. An especially popular option is music therapy.

“I’ve only met one person in my life who hasn’t responded to music,” Simons said. “It has an impact and an ability to resurrect history. And with people who have dementia, it can really help that person.”

Hospice can be a significant game-changer as dementia takes its final toll, sometimes resulting in loss of appetite, changes in cognition, onset of infections and a host of other effects. When hospice is integrated into the process ahead of time, a plan is already in place to address those issues without the additional pain often rendered by debate among siblings and others.

Simons recalls one patient who had implored caregivers ahead of time not to let her die without a final dish of ice cream, and a few minutes on her lounger in the sun. She couldn’t ask for it when her time came, “but we did that for her,” Simons said. “I’ve spent my whole career trying to help people with dementia,” Simons said.

Of late, hospice has been a close collaborator, and for that reason and others, she said softly, “I love hospice.”
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