Dying at Home: The Alternative to Hospitals

Have you thought about dying at home? In the past, that’s all that our ancestors could do – provided they weren’t killed or died accidentally away from the home. In Canada, it seems that more people are choosing the option to die at home, despite free medical care at their hospitals.

According to a new study published in Social Science & Medicine, University of Alberta researcher Donna Wilson looked at mortality data of Canadians dating back to 1950. Up until 1994, 80 per cent of Canadians were choosing to pass on in a hospital bed. But since the mid-’90s there’s been a drastic change in the number of people going to hospital to die. The number is now down to 61 per cent.

“So after years of [the numbers] going up, we have completely reversed that and are now at the 1960 level, before there was free hospital care in Canada,” said Wilson, who adds the decrease in numbers of people dying in hospital has happened without direct health policy or government planning.

Her next study she wants to find out why this trend is happening. But she already has some ideas on the huge swing.

“My guess is that a lot of it has to do with the fact that death is no longer unexpected,” said Wilson. “A lot of people are dying at an advanced age and you begin to accept that fact that it’s going to happen and it [can be] a dignified event. If you take the person to the hospital . . . care is by strangers rather than family members.”

Wilson predicts the number of people dying each year will double, maybe even triple, in the next 10-20 years because of the aging baby-boomer population. And, despite the fact that the Canadian government hasn’t been involved in the stay-at-home deaths to date, Wilson would like to see more involvement and encouragement for the death-at-home option.

“We need to start putting more money in to home care and develop some hospices, have some courses for families and maybe build a few more nursing home beds,” said Wilson, who adds this not only helps the health-care system but also can provide a more dignified and potentially less painful death for the patient.

“All the drug therapies that keep people comfortable in hospital can be used at home,” said Wilson. “You’ve got much more choice. You’re not going to be force-fed; you’re not going to have an intravenous drip started on you that is painful.

“I think we have a very healthy population who can look after dying people.”

Considering the growing hospice care industry, this trend may already be active in the U.S. as well. Hospice care workers are well trained in helping the dying and their families with this life transition. Dying at home among family and friends may be a much more personal and meaningful option than dying in a hospital room amongst strangers.

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