By Aaron Wheeler, Vice President of Home and Community-Based Services, WesleyLife
(Note: This is the fourth in a monthly series of "Living the WesleyLife Way" blog posts that spotlight extraordinary WesleyLife programs, team members, residents, and clients. This month's post features our award-winning WesleyLife Hospice program, serving individuals and families for 15 years across the state of Iowa. Visit this page for more information.)
It’s estimated that in the past year in the United States, 1.72 million individuals have received hospice care. As many of us are aware, that number includes former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. Sadly, the former First Lady passed away just before Thanksgiving, but President Carter, age 99, continues to be served by hospice in his home in Plains, Georgia.
What makes President Carter’s hospice situation a little different from most is that he first received hospice services in February 2023 — a full 10 months ago, shortly after the recurrence of a life-limiting cancer. While many individuals and families view hospice services as a “last resort,” it’s clear the Carters viewed it for what it is: a way to help people live as fully as they can as long as they are able.
If I could change one thing about the way most people view hospice services, that would be that “hospice” is often a word people dread because of the “death sentence” connotation. In reality, hospice is not about giving up hope. It’s about maximizing quality of life based on the individual’s choices, and often about helping family members transition back from caregiver status to simply being a spouse or a son or a daughter again. The comment we hear most often from the families we serve is, “We should have called you guys sooner.”
For those unfamiliar, hospice is defined as medical care for people with an anticipated life expectancy of six months or less — when cure is not an option, and the focus shifts to symptom management and quality of life. Contrary to myths that continue to circulate, hospice care is not care that hastens death.
President Carter and those close to him clearly understood this. In a statement from the Carter Center back in February, a spokesperson shared that President Carter had made the decision to seek hospice services after a series of hospital stays. “He wishes to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of medical intervention,” the statement read. “He has the full support of his family and the medical team.”
That understanding — and the fact that the former President’s hospice journey is unfolding exactly as we would want it to — was illustrated earlier this fall, when the Carters were shown on the national news smiling and waving as they took a ride through a peanut festival in their hometown. Back in February, many likely assumed President Carter would not live much longer. Instead, he obviously has spent the better part of a year truly living, in ways that matter to him.
The fact that he is still living could not be less of a surprise to those of us on the caregiver side of hospice services. A recent study in American Family Physician showed that receiving as little as one day of hospice care — one day! — can enhance life expectancy up to three months. In patients who were part of the study, people who received hospice care for at least several days lived an average of four months longer than those who did not.
And it’s not simply about living longer; hospice helps people live better. Hospice care allows for a shift in mindset; for many clients, the switch from curative care to hospice care can provide a sense of relief. That relief is physical, for certain; controlling pain relaxes the body. But it’s also emotional, in that it removes the arduous decision-making process that comes with trying to cure disease, especially when those efforts are not working.
Without a doubt, hospice services turn the focus back to relationships — about revisiting, restoring, and enhancing those connections that make life truly worth living.
Whether President Carter lives many more days or many more months, his hospice experience suits a life well lived. We wish him a continued enhancement in his quality of life, and we hope those on the fence about hospice services will follow his lead. No matter how close to the end stages of life a person happens to be, hospice services can make things better.