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Successful Aging: An example of successful end of life care

Last week, we addressed D.B’s request to discuss hospice and its valuable service to those facing life-limiting illnesses. This week, we describe an innovative home that welcomes hospice services for those who want to live their remaining time in a peaceful, comforting and supportive environment.

That home is Caring House, located in a residential section of Torrance. Caring House is the first non-medical home in Los Angeles County exclusively focusing on end-of-life care. It all started 13 years ago when Ed Long and other founding volunteers met with a group of South Bay senior service providers and asked them what services were missing. Their response: a house dedicated to end-of-life care. And so began the quest.

The volunteers raised funds to purchase the Torrance home and converted it to accommodate six private bedrooms, bathrooms, a common area for families to rest, talk and receive support, plus a full kitchen and conference room. The first resident and family arrived in February 2016. Since then, 21 residents have lived during their final days at Caring House with stays ranging from four to 108 days (26 day average). Ages ranged from 48 to 93 years (78 years average). “Each resident has a story and the stories are phenomenal,” says Long. Stories are captured in writing by Caring House and saved with permission in a permanent binder and at the website.

The residents are well cared for by paid caregivers who have been carefully selected and trained by the administrator. With two 12-hour shifts, they are on duty 24/7, 365 days a year. Additional support comes from administrator Karen Hlavaty-Pearson who was a home health and hospice nurse for 24 years plus vetted volunteers. With volunteers who help with activities, kitchen tasks, laundry, and maintenance, the paid caregivers are able to spend more time providing care. Collectively, volunteers give on average 15 hours per day, seven days a week.

My two-hour visit at Caring House affirmed the non-medical environment. Language was just one indicator. Patients are residents; Caring House is a home, not a facility; hospital beds are resident care beds. And Caring House has bedrooms not just beds. Staff does not wear uniforms. The home smells fresh and clean. Then there are those special aromas emanating from the kitchen: freshly baked cinnamon buns, chocolate chip cookies and coffee. Hlavaty-Pearson said “Some people think our home would be depressing. It’s not. It’s a happy place where you can hear music and laughter. On a daily basis, residents are provided the opportunity to experience as much joy and pleasure as possible.”

She indicated there also are tears. Yet “every moment of life is to be celebrated.” She adds, “It’s not about dying; it’s about how you will live in the time you have left.” Long shared that “Caring House sees the end of life as each person’s last transition. It strives to offer each dying person and their loved ones peace, comfort and support – and space and time for resolution and reconciliation. Last wishes may be fulfilled, stories may be written and memories shared and created.” Residents can choose from a variety of Medicare-certified hospice services. Although Medicare and Medi-Cal cover hospice costs, they do not cover the charge for staying at Caring House, which is $255 a day, an amount less than the actual cost per person. Ability to pay also is considered.

Ritual is important. For example when a resident first arrives, his or her name is written on a heart-shaped stone and placed on the front bay window sill. The stone of the most recent resident to pass away is placed in the center, surrounded by all others. Residents are honored during their time at Caring House and honored when they are gone. Two similar homes exist in California. Our Community House of Hope in Thousand Oaks, Ventura County is licensed similar to Caring House and does similar work. Sarah House in Santa Barbara also is similar, although it originated and is licensed for HIV/AIDS. These three homes are unique among California care homes since they are not medical facilities and not part of a specific Hospice service. Residents are welcomed regardless of which hospice service they choose.

A final thought from Long. “Hundreds have helped make this happen. Together we are doing something wonderful for our community.” Thank you to D.B. for your question last week about hospice and the importance of making decisions to live well until our last breath.

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