By Lynne Shallcross
When a family member of mine was dying of cancer, her husband’s boss told him to take all the time he needed to care for her. She was granted her wish of being at home when she left this earth, surrounded by those she loved most.
But a wide base of support is needed in order for a patient’s wish to die at home to be made real — including, in some cases, whether someone can take time off work to be with their loved one in their final days, a study finds.
Terminally ill cancer patients whose relatives took at least two weeks off work in the three months preceding their death had a greater likelihood of dying at home, compared with patients whose relatives took no more than three days off.
The study, which was published in BMC Medicine on Thursday, looked at the deaths of more than 350 cancer patients in London. Using feedback from those patients’ loved ones, researchers found that four factors could explain 91 percent of deaths that occurred at home: patient’s preference, relative’s preference, home palliative care or district/community nursing.
Having a comprehensive home-care plan in place is crucial, says lead author Barbara Gomes, a research fellow at the Cicely Saunders Institute of Palliative Care, Policy & Rehabilitation at King’s College London. That should include specialist palliative care services and the availability of around-the-clock nursing. The number of home doctor visits also increased a patient’s chances of dying at home.
But researchers also identified three factors that had been previously overlooked yet still weighed into whether a patient died at home: the length of time in which the family knew the patient’s illness was incurable; discussion of the patient’s preference with family; and the number of days family members took off work in the three months before the patient’s death.
There are a variety of possible explanations for the connection between relatives’ days off work and a loved one’s at-home death, but Gomes is careful to point out that this retrospective, observational study can’t draw a cause and effect on this point.
Some governments have recognized the importance of being with a loved one who is dying and have set up support programs to better facilitate family caregiving. Gomes points to a compassionate care benefit in Canada, which offers employees a paid employment insurance program if they need to care for a gravely ill loved one.
Only three states have paid family leave policies: California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Both Washington, D.C., and the state of New York are considering paid family leave legislation, and the FAMILY Act was introduced in Congress this year with the goal of providing a national paid family and medical leave insurance program.
David Bolotsky, founder and CEO of the online marketplace and retailer UncommonGoods, provides his employees at the Brooklyn-based company with paid leave. Not all American workers are so lucky: Every company has a different policy and different leave benefits. Although many workers are eligible for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to care for a child, parent or spouse with a serious health condition, that leave is unpaid, which can make it financially impossible.
Bolotsky argues for providing paid family leave to all employees, as he did recently in an op-ed in support of the New York bill. “For most of us, nothing is more important than our families,” he says. “The folks who raised us ought to be able to have a dignified passing, and being able to be there with your loved ones is really important.”
The British study also found that dying at home was more peaceful for the patient and led to less grief among their loved ones. And the people who died at home didn’t experience more pain than those who were in a hospital.
Though health care should ideally be patient-centered, Gomes says remembering the crucial role that relatives play in the decision-making process and in the actual caregiving is important.
She recommends that health care providers encourage the patient and loved ones to discuss preferences for where the terminally ill patient will die, as well as acknowledge that preferences may change as time goes on.
Providers should also help the patient and relatives become aware of the medical supports and services available to them, along with explaining that staying at home to die may not be medically feasible.
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