by Ray Burow
Death is not a fun topic, but failing to talk about end-of-life plans results in a lack of preparation and exacerbates emotional strain when a loved one passes away at home.
If your loved one opts to live out their final days in their house, or if you care for an elderly spouse or parent who’s in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, they could die at home. Are you prepared? What are your loved one’s end-of-life wishes? Would they choose to pass away at home? Is hospice care an option, or is a hospital setting a better choice for your circumstances? Medicare often pays for hospice care.
Why some people prefer to die at home
Passing away at home is often preferred by critically ill or older individuals. According to the Stanford School of Medicine, studies indicate that 80% of Americans would choose to pass from this life surrounded by what’s familiar to them, preferably at home. However, many don’t get their wish. Only 20% of Americans die at home, while 60% die in acute care hospitals and 20% die in nursing homes.
People prefer to die at home for various reasons, but perhaps control is a primary contributor. The family can manage who comes and goes, providing an opportunity to gather, reminisce, and properly say goodbye. Caregivers administer palliative care in a comfortable, familiar environment rather than one that is foreign and starkly sterile.
Hospice care will assist with pain management, and no heroic actions are taken to resuscitate the patient, who is allowed to slip away. Depending on the laws in your state, you may be able to keep the body at the house for a period of time, and some families may choose to have the funeral at home, too.
How to prepare for a death at home
Preparing to die at home is a process that must occur before the person’s final days. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, it is essential to decide in the early days of the condition, while the decision is still yours to make. Caregivers and loved ones, acting as surrogates, can carry out your wishes, but only when they know what they are.
An advance health directive is crucial to securing end-of-life wishes. It’s a legal document containing the patient’s desires. If the patient is incapacitated, the document expresses their values regarding end-of-life processes. These include whether first responders and healthcare professionals will administer CPR, if the patient will donate organs, and what comfort measures will be in place during the dying process.
When a person dies at home unexpectedly and without an advance directive, first responders typically can’t pronounce them dead, as required by law. Paramedics transport the remains to the nearest hospital emergency room, where a doctor will pronounce them. If hospice is in place, the hospice nurse can pronounce the person’s death at home, and the family arranges for a funeral home to remove the remains.
Without hospice, a living will, or an advance directive, the family must call emergency services when their loved one dies at home. Paramedics, possibly firefighters, and police officers will arrive at your home, but only a doctor or coroner can pronounce death.
Understand that without the proper documents in hand, paramedics have to follow protocol and will often begin administering emergency procedures and transport your loved one to a hospital where a doctor with authority to pronounce can do so. There are exceptions to this rule depending on where you live, and in some cases, paramedics are permitted to pronounce.
Some states require an autopsy when a person dies at home. If the deceased was advanced in age, an autopsy might not be necessary. In either case, you must make arrangements for transportation to a funeral home or crematorium. Don’t be shy to ask about cost. Funeral homes are required by law to provide that information when requested.
There is much more to preparing for death at home than what we can briefly discuss in this column, including the emotional and spiritual aspects and mourning through the grieving process. Mourning is necessary and healthy, and it’s futile to try and skip it. Grief will rise to meet you in unexpected places and at random times. A grief counselor, pastor, trusted friend, or family member can help you through the mourning process. You don’t need to mourn alone.
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