Giving Thanks for Hospice

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012
Molly Cabe and Carol Ley, harpist for Angel of Shavano Hospice, play a duet in our living room, November, 2011

A year ago, this house was filled with people. Molly and her sweetie Mark were staying in the guest cottage, Richard was ensconced in the hospital bed in our bedroom; friends and family came and went along with nurses, home health care aides and others from his hospice team. Even while I appreciated their support and love, the parade of people often overwhelmed me. I craved peace and quiet.

Today, it's just me. I have peace and quiet in spades, and of course, I would trade it to bring Richard back, his smile beaming like sunshine. (Ttechnically it's not just me here: Buffy Noble, an English poet, is staying in the guest cottage with the Terraphilia Residency Program. She's very quiet though.)

My late love and his incandescent smile....

The approach of Thanksgiving has me thinking about what I'm thankful for. The list is long, beginning with the love and support of my wonderful family, the generous community of this small town, and the rich fellowship of friends and readers and colleagues.

Right up near the top of that list is hospice. Last year I got to know two hospice organizations: Visiting Nurses Association of Denver cared for my mom until her death in early February. Seven months later to the day, Richard's oncologist told us it was time to refer him for hospice care. So the day after we returned from The Big Trip, our three-week, nearly 4,000-mile-long drive across the interior West and down the Pacific Coast from Washington state to southern California, his team from Angel of Shavano Hospice made their first visit.

What is hospice? Simply put, it is team-oriented, compassionate care for people with a terminal illness or injury, and their families. Hospice care focuses on combining therapeutic medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support to allow people to live the end of their lives in dignity and comfort, whether in a hospice facility or at home. The word originated with shelters for travelers on pilgrimages in the Middle Ages; the first modern facility to employ hospice principles in caring for the terminally ill was established 1967 by Dame Cicely Saunders, a British physician.

None of us want to think about death. But if we do, most of us would prefer to die at home or in a comfortable facility with expert care. Why wouldn't we?

Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver's Brown Palace Hotel

That's where hospice comes in. When my bright and tenacious 79-year-old mother's body began to fail, stressed by decades of living with what her doctor said was the most severe case of rheumatoid arthritis she had ever seen, and aggravated by the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, Mom was sure she would be "fine" soon. But after she stepped out of bed one night (having forgotten she could no longer walk) and her brittle right hip shattered, she was sent to a rehab center. All she wanted was to go home with Dad, and the Denver Visiting Nurses Association made that possible. By the time Mom drew her last breath, holding Dad's hand as she had for more than 58 years, she had come to look forward to visits from her hospice team, and her sparkling smile bloomed.

Then in September, it was my love's turn. The two months between when we got home from The Big Trip and his death on November 27th could have been dominated by fear and grief. Instead, thanks to the warm and skilled support of his team from Angel of Shavano Hospice, especially his nurse, Will Archuletta, and the presence of Molly, who spent the last five weeks of his life with us, love and laughter and sweetness prevailed. We were blessed, and hospice was a big part of that.

Thanksgiving 2009: Richard, Dad, Mom, and my sister-in-law, Lucy Winter

So in this time of giving thanks, I am thankful for Dame Cicely Saunders for her vision and courage, for the Veteran's Administration for embracing hospice and palliative care, and for hospice caregivers and organizations everywhere.

I encourage you to learn about and support your local hospice organization. Because much as we hate to think about it, they'll likely support you or those you love one of these days.

(Two other outstanding hospice organizations in Colorado are Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care in Colorado Springs, and The Denver Hospice.)