As a palliative care physician, I regularly ask my patients, or their family members, where they want to die. The specific language I use depends on what they know, what they want to know and how they process information, but the basic premise is the same. Having asked this of hundreds of patients, I have come to expect most will tell me that they want to be at home.
But recently I have struggled with the complex realities of dying at home, and the unintended consequences of our making it a societal priority.
The system is imperfect, though. Unless a family has the significant resources necessary to hire aides or nurses, informal caregivers become responsible for nearly everything — from feeding to bathing to toileting. These tasks often get harder as the dying person weakens. In my experience, most family members want to care for their loved ones at home, but many are unaware of caregiving’s physical and emotional toll. And the length of time a patient spends in hospice care is difficult to predict, sometimes requiring caregivers to take significant time away from work or other family members.
Complicating matters, I frequently detect ambivalence in patients who tell me they want to die at home. Some are comforted by the reliability of the nursing care and easier accessibility of IV medications in the hospital. For others, dying at home may not be their top priority. Parents may want to protect their young children’s physical space from death. Similarly, one patient’s wife told me through tears that their adult son had died suddenly in their home a few years earlier; she could not bear the thought of watching her husband die in the same place.
Recovery simply means a movement toward preferred ways of living one’s life. Based on a conventional medical perspective that you may have...