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stimulated by the debate over assisted suicide. In sum, the timing appears right to press for a vigorous societal commitment to improve care for the dying. Such a commitment would motivate and sustain local and national efforts to strengthen and apply the existing knowledge base, reform procedures and policies that impede good care for the dying, and stress the caring functions of health delivery systems.
Today and Tomorrow
The preceding chapters have profiled important aspects of dying in America. They have noted that three-fourths of those who die are elderly and that most people who die are covered by Medicare or other federal, state, or local programs for older, disabled, or impoverished people. Compared to earlier times, death now comes more often in old age from a chronic or progressive disease. Most deaths occur in institutions, mainly hospitals and, to a lesser extent, nursing homes. The proportion of people who die at home is, however, increasing. Only a minority of all deaths involve people cared for by formal hospice programs, and the majority of these involve cancer diagnoses. All patients can potentially benefit from good palliative care, but hospice programs as organized and financed in the United States are most applicable to those with relatively predictable prognoses.
Although specifics may vary according to the nature of a person's disease and his or her personal circumstances, care for dying people and those close to them has several broad dimensions: physical, psychological, spiritual, and practical. Each of these dimensions is intertwined in the key processes of care, which include determining and communicating diagnosis and prognosis, establishing goals and plans, and fitting palliative and other care to these goals. The way care is organized, financed, monitored, and regulated affects how these processes are carried out in different settings for different kinds of patients.
The twenty-first century will bring new realities as well as continuing problems and opportunities in care at the end of life. It will undoubtedly deliver improvements in what medical science can do to prevent and relieve distress for those approaching death, but demographic, economic, and other trends will strain systems that already find it difficult to deliver what clinical knowledge currently allows—and what compassion should grant.
The committee focused primarily on trends and expectations relevant to care for dying patients during the next 10 to 20 years. One of these expectations is that policymakers and others will need to prepare during this period for the final demographic consequences of the post-World War II baby boom. The oldest members of the baby boom generation will reach age 65 in the year 2011, and the youngest members will do so nearly 20