Bridging gap between life, death

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Death is a part of every life.

But just knowing it's a common experience doesn't make the process of letting go any easier. That's where the staff members and volunteers at Hospice of the Central Peninsula come in.

The nonprofit organization provides free home care for terminally ill patients, as well as a wide range of support services for families of dying patients and individuals who have experienced loss.

It's been a busy year for the two full-time staffers and dozens of volunteers at the organization. Nearly 300 central peninsula residents died in 2003, and hospice worked with 30 of those individuals prior to their deaths. Hospice also served about 35 survivors with support groups designed to help individuals deal with their grief. And, the organization recently sponsored a celebration of life service to bring together community members in remembrance of those who died.

"We had the biggest turnout ever," said Sue Zurfluh, hospice's bereavement coordinator.

Still, organizers of the group worry that many on the central peninsula don't know about the range of services hospice can provide.

"It's important to get the word out, because there are a lot of hurting people who don't know where to go," Zurfluh said.

Among the most well-known of hospice's services is "direct care," offered in-home to make dying individuals more comfortable and to give respite to families trying to care for ill relatives.

"We believe every person is entitled to prepare for his or her death in a way that is personally satisfying," Zurfluh said. "We're not going in and trying to direct traffic. We want to provide peace and comfort to the dying individual and family."

Hospice volunteers can provide basic medical care for dying patients, as well as support for their families.

"We have wonderful literature we're able to give to families and clients," said Mary Jensen, hospice's volunteer coordinator.

In order to qualify for hospice's direct care, patients must be diagnosed with terminal illnesses and have life expectancies of six months or less. They must have a primary doctor who is supportive of hospice programs, and they must accept palliative, or comfort-based, care, rather than curative treatments.

Hospice services for these individuals and families are free. Hospice volunteers can help families prepare advanced directives, such as living wills or do not resuscitate orders, provide in-home care and offer help in the coping process for patients and their families.

"The focus is on the individual and family, rather than the disease," said Marquitta Andrus, the new executive director of the central peninsula organization. Andrus has been executive director for less than a week.

"We try to make dying not a medical event but a social event," Jensen added. "We're just kind of a bridge to help people go from here to their final resting place. Volunteer and support people do not come with their own agenda. They meet people right where they're at."

Hospice can provide as much as six months of direct care, helping families and individuals prepare for death.

But they don't just disappear after the patient dies, staff members said.

Volunteers remain in contact with the families for as much as a year after a loved one dies.

"Our modern society is a 'quick fix' society," said Vicki Wood, the volunteer widow and bereavement facilitator with hospice. "Grieving and loss are not quick fixes."

Terminally ill patients and their families aren't the only ones hospice helps, either.

Hospice provides a loan closet, with free medical equipment, such as walkers, hospital beds and crutches, available for anyone in the community to borrow.

It also offers free support groups that meet once a month for anyone in the community dealing with loss, recent or in the past. Participants do not have to have previous experience with hospice.

"Circle of Friends" meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m. the third Tuesday of each month and is open to anyone who has experienced loss.

"Transitions" meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m. the first Friday of each month and is open to women who have lost their husbands.

"Healing Hearts," which meets the second Wednesday of each month, is a support group for mothers who have lost children.

"TAG," a support group for teens, meets the third Tuesday of the month to help young adults deal with loss.

TAG is the newest of hospice's support groups and one hospice coordinators hope to focus on especially in the coming year. Zurfluh said she also hopes to have an opportunity to build partnerships with some area schools and reach out to young people in need of support.

"So many kids have had losses recently, even in the last month," Zurfluh said.

The support groups are designed to offer grieving individuals a chance to share their stories and gain support from people in similar situations.

"When I had my losses, I didn't have anyone to talk to, to show me what I was feeling was normal. I felt alone, but really, we all have these feelings," Zurfluh said. "That's how we grow and heal, by sharing our stories. We may have to tell them over and over again to get some place else in our grief."

The support groups are run by volunteers who have experienced losses similar to group members, organizers said.

"When someone says, 'I know what you mean,' they really do," Wood said. "They've been there and done that."

Finally, hospice provides care and support for residents at Heritage Place and Central Peninsula General Hospital, Jensen said.

"Not all families can do the dying process at home," she said. "And not everyone has a family."

Those people still need and deserve the help hospice can provide, she said.

"Hospice is about dignity, choices and caring," she said.

"Every human being deserves not to be alone when they die," Wood said.

The office of Hospice of the Central Peninsula, behind U-Haul on the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna, is open to visits from community members. Staff also can be reached by phone at 262-0453.

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