Background: In addition to medical care, dying patients often need many types of assistance, including help with transportation, nursing care, homemaking services, and personal care. We interviewed terminally ill adults and their care givers in six randomly selected areas of the United States (five metropolitan areas and one rural county) to determine how their needs for assistance were met and the frequency with which they received such assistance from family members and paid and volunteer care givers.
Methods: The patients, whose physicians estimated them to have less than six months to live and who had clinically significant illness other than human immunodeficiency virus infection or the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, were referred to the study by their physicians. Of the 1131 eligible patients, 988 (87.4 percent) consented to a detailed in-person interview conducted in English, as did 893 of the 915 eligible primary care givers (97.6 percent).
Results: Of the 988 terminally ill patients, 59.4 percent were over the age of 65 years, and 51.5 percent were women. The most frequent terminal illness was cancer (in 51.8 percent of the patients), followed by heart disease (18.0 percent) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (10.9 percent). Four percent of the patients were in an institution, such as a nursing home, residential hospice, or hospital; the rest were living in a private residence. A need for assistance was reported by 86.8 percent of the patients; they required help with transportation (reported by 62.0 percent), homemaking services (55.2 percent), nursing care (28.7 percent), and personal care (26.0 percent). Of the care givers, 72.1 percent were women. Primary care givers were family members in 96.0 percent of cases; only 4.0 percent were unrelated. Most patients relied completely on family members and friends for assistance. A total of 15.5 percent of patients relied only on paid assistance for more than half of the types of care that they needed. Volunteers (that is, unpaid helpers who were not family members or friends) provided less than 3 percent of all care.
Conclusions: In our survey of terminally ill patients, family members, usually women, provided the majority of assistance with nonmedical care. Although many people received assistance from paid care givers, very few had assistance from volunteers.