Hospices started opening in the United States in the 1970s, primarily for cancer patients who chose not to continue treatment. Over the years, hospices have evolved to also care for people suffering from heart and lung disease, dementia and other progressive ailments.
If a doctor thinks someone has less than six months to live, that person can qualify for services. Hospice agencies provide doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains to help patients ease toward their end, often at home.
"We help them live without pain," said Marci Pruitt, vice president of Suncoast Hospice, which serves Pinellas County. "And we support the families, for a few hours a week or continuous care, during the time of crisis and even long after that."
Medicare pays for most hospice services; general care gets $150 a day, an estimated $17 billion annually. From 2000-12, the number of Medicare patients receiving hospice care more than doubled. More than 5,500 hospice programs in the United States now serve 1.5 million patients, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization says.
In Florida, 43 hospices saw 116,958 patients in 2013; most were 65 or older.
Suncoast, part of Empath Health, started in 1977 in a tiny office near the now-razed Pinellas Park mall. In 2013, the not-for-profit agency had 7,831 patients. Some were in hospitals, others in nursing homes or care centers. But most remained at home or with relatives.
"So many of our patients die less than a week after coming to us," Pruitt said. "We want people to come earlier so we can help."
For more information about Suncoast Hospice services in Pinellas County, go to thehospice.org or call (727) 467-7423.
For services in Hillsborough County, contact LifePath Hospice at chaptershealth.org or call toll-free 1-800-355-8170.
In Pasco County, contact Gulfside Hospice at ghppc.org our call toll-free 1-800-561-4883.
Also in Pasco and Hernando counties, contact Hernando-Pasco Hospice at hph-hospice.org or call toll-free 1-866-940-0962.