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Honoring hospice and palliative care nurses: advocating, leading, and caring for those facing advanced illness

By Terre Mirsch

Every year, more than 3.1 million nurses across the United States are honored as we celebrate National Nurses Week. This week-long celebration begins May 6 and culminates May 12 on Florence Nightingale’s birthday, who founded modern nursing. This year’s theme, Nurses: Advocating, Leading, and Caring is an appropriate reflection of the role of the hospice nurse as an integral member of the hospice interdisciplinary team. Understanding the role of the hospice nurse will help you maximize the support you receive as you care for your loved one.

Hospice and palliative care nurses receive specialized education and training regarding the care of patients and families who are facing life limiting illness. The hospice registered nurse is responsible for coordinating the hospice team’s response to all patient and family needs. In other words, they ensure that questions, concerns, and needs are addressed so that you receive the physical, emotional, and spiritual support that you and your family need. This nursing team member is typically referred to as the Case Manager.

You may also encounter other nurses throughout the course of care including an admission nurse, other visit nurses including licensed practical nurses, triage nurses, or on-call nurses that are specially prepared to respond to urgent needs during the evening and nighttime hours. Some hospice programs also employ wound nurses, mental health nurses, and complementary therapy nurses as team members.  Advance practice nurses such as nurse practitioners may also be available to make specialized visits and provide necessary support.

What will the hospice nurse do for us?

You can count on the hospice nurse to assist you in the following ways:

  • Make regularly scheduled visits to you and your loved one. How often the hospice nurse visits depends on your loved ones needs and may range from one or two times a week to every day or several times a day.
  • Assess your loved one’s physical and emotional condition, communicating changes and concerns to your physician and the hospice medical director.
  • Anticipate symptoms and other changes that may occur as illness progresses, ensuring that your loved one gets the right type and amount of treatment and medication for problems such as pain, breathing difficulties, or anxiety.
  • Evaluate the environment and other factors that may increase your loved one’s risk for falls or other serious events. The hospice nurse will make recommendations to improve safety and keep your loved one free from harm.
  • Educate you and your family regarding your loved one’s illness and the care that is needed. The hospice nurse will prepare you so that you feel very confident in doing what is needed in caring for your loved one; understanding and administering medications; and knowing what to expect  as illness progresses, during the dying process, and at the time of your loved one’s death.
  • Provide a listening ear, as well as emotional and spiritual support, to you and your loved one.
  • Supervise specially trained hospice aides who provide personal care services, including bathing, toileting, feeding, and companionship.
  • Work closely with other team members including the social worker, chaplain, and volunteer, and
  • Order medical equipment, supplies, and medications as needed.

Hospice and palliative care nurses advocate for your needs in order for your loved one to be cared for safely and comfortably in accordance with his or her wishes. Often described by grateful family members as “angels of mercy” or “angels sent from heaven”, they demonstrate caring and compassion during life’s transitions.

During National Nurses Week 2012, share your stories about how hospice and palliative care nurses helped you and your family. Take a moment to honor their role and express words of gratitude for the difference they make.

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