W hen you or someone you love receives a terminal-illness diagnosis, it’s hard to know what to do next. But hospice can provide support and care during this critical time.

It is designed to aid families and patients in the final stages of a terminal illness, with a focus on increasing the quality of life rather than on a cure, says Shoshana Ungerleider, M.D., a physician at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Hospice attends to “things like comfort, whether it be physical pain, spiritual suffering, or other symptoms,” Ungerleider says. “The goal is to allow patients and their families to be comfortable and pain-free, as much as possible, so that they can live each day . . . in line with their goals and values.”

More on Hospice Care

Ungerleider and other experts emphasize that hospice doesn’t have to be a one-way street. If you go into remission or show improvement, you can stop hospice and resume treatment.

Patients and their families usually delay this care—the typical time in hospice was just two weeks, according to one study—presumably out of a fear that hospice means “giving up.” But this is a misconception, and hospice can often be of the most help when launched earlier.

What Hospice Offers

A hospice team can involve nurses, physicians, social workers, even a chaplain if desired, as well as specialists such as speech pathologists, Ungerleider says.

Though the primary caregivers are often family members, hospice services include nursing, physical and occupational therapy, grief and loss counseling, medication to control symptoms, equipment, and supplies.

Most often these services are delivered at home, an assisted living facility, or a nursing home, though they can also be given at a hospital, says Diane E. Meier, M.D., direc­tor of the Center to Advance Palliative Care and a professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Mount ­Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

The Right Time for Hospice

Shortly after receiving a terminal diag­no­sis, you may want to start thinking about hospice services. If you have Medicare and if two physicians deem it unlikely that you will live for more than six months, you are eligible for hospice coverage. Hospice is covered by Medicare for 90 days at first but can be renewed without limits. (Private insurance policies usually cover hospice as well.)

“About 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries receive hospice for seven days or less—and we think that that’s far too short a time,” says Jon Radulovic, a spokesman for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). “Hospice is well-suited for months of life, not days.”

Waiting until the last minute to elect hospice means a lot of people are missing “that huge advantage that hospice provides in terms of letting people stay comfortable, stay home, and stay in control, so they can do the things they enjoy and be with family and friends,” Meier says.

The NHPCO offers resources to help you choose a hospice program. Look for those with not-for-profit status, certification by Medicare, and a long record of service. You can also compare your options at medicare.gov/hospicecompare.

If Caregivers or Patients Need a Break

While going through a difficult illness, people sometimes need a breather. That’s why some hospice teams offer what’s called respite care. Either a patient or a caregiver can tell the hospice team that he or she is feeling overwhelmed and needs extra help.

As Meier explains, the team can either move the patient to another setting for a few days or provide more in-person assistance in the home for a few days so that the patient and family or caregiver can have some time apart to rest and recharge.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health