History of Hospice

The 50th Anniversary of the Hospice Movement

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the hospice movement. It’s been an incredible success story. The Hospice Movement, including advances in palliative care and the introduction of holistic support, has been generally credited by the rise of two influential 20th century figures: (Dame) Dr. Cicely Saunders and Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

An Unmet Need Recognized

Dame Cicely Saunders

Dame Cicely Saunders

Englishwoman Cicely Saunders was a medical social worker in 1948 when she developed a relationship with a dying Polish refugee that helped solidify her ideas that terminally ill patients needed compassionate care to help address their fears and concerns, as well as palliative (pain and symptom management) comfort for their physical condition. Saunders began volunteering at a facility for the terminally ill poor, where a  physician convinced her that she could best influence the treatment of the terminally ill as a physician herself. Upon graduation from medical school in 1957, she accepted a permanent position in a hospice facility in East London, where she continued to research pain control.

Saunders introduced the idea of specialized care for the dying to the United States during a 1963 visit to Yale University. Her lecture, given to medical students, nurses, social workers and chaplains about the concept of holistic hospice care, included photos of terminally ill cancer patients and their families, showing the dramatic differences before and after the symptom control care.

St. Christopher's Hospice

St. Christopher’s Hospice

In 1967, Saunders established St. Christopher’s Hospice, the world’s first purpose-built hospice, in a London suburb. It was founded on the principles of combining teaching and clinical research and providing expert pain and symptom relief with holistic care to meet the physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs of its patients and those of their family and friends. Familiar comforts of home were made available to patients, from gardening to salon hairstyling. As Saunders’ protégé Dr. Richard Lamerton later explained, a patient’s home or a home-like setting was found to be essential as a part of therapy, versus a hospital – the last place to be when one needed peace and calm.

A Plea for Empowerment and Dignity

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

In Chicago, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was formulating her own response to the treatment of terminally ill patients in late-1960s America. Married to an American physician, she observed what she considered inadequate social responses by his hospital toward its dying patients. She began a study that would lead to more than 500 interviews with terminally ill patients.

On Death and Dying was published in 1969 and became a bestseller. A revolutionarily insightful work, it identified five stages through which many terminally ill patients progress. These stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) would become widely accepted in the decades that followed as ‘the five stages of grief’. Even into the 21st century, On Death and Dying would continue to be the gold standard for education on the subject. The book was more than a simple explanation of psychological expressions, however. Within it, Kübler-Ross made a plea for care in the patient’s home as opposed to treatment in an institutional setting. She further argued that patients should have a choice and the ability to participate in the decisions that affect their destiny, including patients’ rights to refuse treatment that they felt would not be beneficial or would not improve their quality of life.

Testimony Leads to Federal Support

In 1972, the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging conducted the first national hearings on the subject of death with dignity. Kübler-Ross was asked to testify. In her testimony, she capitalized on the opportunity to emphasize the benefits of patient care in the patient’s own home: “We live in a very particular death-denying society. We isolate both the dying and the old, and it serves a purpose. They are reminders of our own mortality. We should not institutionalize people. We can give families more help with home care and visiting nurses, giving families and patients the spiritual, emotional, and financial help in order to facilitate the final care at home.”

The impacts of Saunders and Kübler-Ross redefined hospice care across the globe: comprehensive care for the patient’s physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs; patient empowerment to make decisions about the type of care they wish to receive or not receive; emphasis on at-home care for best patient comfort when possible; and an expanded circle of care to include the patient’s family and friends.

In 1978, a report by a U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare task force noted both the altruistic and practical advantages of government support for hospice care: “The hospice movement as a concept for the care of the terminally ill and their families is a viable concept and one which holds out a means of providing more humane care for Americans dying of terminal illness while possibly reducing costs. As  such, it is the proper subject of federal support.”

The Hospice Movement Comes to Houston

In 1980, Houston’s first hospice, Houston Hospice, was founded. The same year, New Age Hospice was formed, which later merged with  Houston Hospice. New Age Hospice’s primary organizer, Marion Wilson, was determined to establish a source of humane, caring responses for dying patients and their families, following the loss of three of her children.

In 1981 Houston Hospice (as New Age Hospice) began accepting patients. Its first Medical Director was Dr. Richard Lamerton, a revered

authority on care of the terminally ill who had been the first intern trained by Dame Cicely Saunders at St. Christopher’s Hospice in London.

A 1985 visit by Princess Diana to St. Joseph’s Hospice. One of its founders, Dr. Richard Lamerton, became the first Medical Director of Houston Hospice.

—Karla Goolsby, Houston Hospice Communications Specialist

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