November is National Hospice Month and Southern Idaho Living salutes those compassionate caregivers who provide comfort and peace to our loved ones in their final days and hours.
Don and Carolyn Coon have been married 57 years. Now they are slowly saying goodbye. Don is dying of congestive heart failure and kidney failure. In addition, he is blind and nearly deaf. At 80 years old, he has found very few things that can keep him distracted, so he lies in a hospital bed in
front of a sunny window on a patchwork quilt that Carolyn made from vintage fabrics. Most of his medications are pain relievers now.
“The doctor said my heart is shot and my kidneys are giving out,” he says frankly. “Being off the other medicines, I actually feel better. I can see me going down, down, down. In May I’d walk around the house a couple times and go out and walk around the garage a little bit. Now I can’t even go out of the house.”
He is attended by Cassie Tracy, a registered nurse with Minidoka Hospital’s Hospice Care.
Hospice programs are reserved for those in their final stage of life and provide palliative care to patients when a cure is no longer possible. Terminally ill patients can be treated at an assisted living facility or at the patient’s home. Nurses and aids tend to the physical, spiritual, emotional and social needs of patients, as well as provide comfort, counseling and aid to loved ones left behind.
“I think the program’s great,” Don says.
Cassie visits the Coons twice a week, more if needed. She is available 24 hours a day if Don and Carolyn need her. Don’s other “attendant” is a small mixed breed dog named Squirt. At first, Squirt was Carolyn’s pet; since Don became ill, Squirt rarely leaves his side. Carolyn is grateful for Cassie’s skills and Squirt’s affection.
“A lot of times when Don gets up in the night, Squirt will go in and wake [Carolyn],” Cassie says.
Carolyn gives Don most of his medication, under Cassie’s direction.
“I can call anytime and I can get help,” Carolyn says with obvious relief. “Even at night, I can call the hospital and say that my husband’s on hospice care, and they’ll get a nurse to call me right back. The aides are real good. When they come, it gives me a chance to get out of the house, get my grocery shopping done. And if I want to go someplace special, I can usually get someone to come and stay with him. They’re angels.”
In 1995, Flo Slatter and her daughter Tami Slatter created Hospice Visions, Inc. in Twin Falls. According to Tami, they are the only freestanding non-profit hospice serving the Magic Valley.
“Normally, if people have struggled [with a disease], they have fought and fought, but where are they financially? A lot of times they are drained,” Tami explains. “The last thing they need when they are ending this life is to have their family faced with a huge financial burden.”
Hospice Visions’ fee schedule is adjusted to meet Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance allowable fees. The portion that families are unable to meet is covered by memorials, grants and two fundraisers each year: a golf tournament in late summer, and their annual Celebrate Life event in March where families gather to dance, dine and participate in an auction.
Hospice Visions, Inc. has a combination paid/volunteer staff of around 50, but they are looking for more volunteers. They are always open to donations of money or new goods for the auction.
Volunteers are especially needed for their new program, 11th Hour Angels, in which people sit with hospice patients during their last days or hours because sometimes there is no family available. Volunteers receive an orientation and training course.
“We tell our volunteers to talk to the patient,” Tami says. “Hearing is the last sense to go. Even if the patient is comatose, they may be hearing you. People deserve as much care while dying as they do while living. ”
The Slatter women, who are also nurses, have personal reasons for operating the company. Tami’s father required hospice care during his final days, and Tami and Flo saw what a difference it made to the family.
“That’s what motivates our staff,” Tami says, “knowing what a difference we can make.”
Through its Home Safe Home program, Tami’s staff provides free evaluations for anyone considering hospice. In addition, Hospice Visions, Inc. offers approved patients the use of Hospice Home, a two-bedroom, 24-hour care retreat east of Jerome. It is a peaceful refuge near nature, where deer, rabbits and other wildlife can be watched from the deck.
Besides treating the patient, Tami believes it is important to provide community education on end-of-life care. They also offer bereavement counseling to anyone who needs it, regardless of the person’s affiliation with hospice.
“The best time to learn about hospice is before you need it,” Tami says, adding that people should interview several hospice providers before deciding on one.
Don’s doctors have said there isn’t much to be done for his condition. The former carpet layer and carpenter’s time is growing short. The emphasis has shifted from extending his life to easing his pain.
“I’m not afraid,” Don says. “I know the Lord is my Savior, so I know death don’t have any hold on me. I know when I leave here, I’ll be with Him.”
Carolyn stays positive. It’s a bittersweet kind of courage. One of life’s challenges is watching your lifetime partner weaken.
“Neither of us fears death, and sometimes I wish He would take him,” Carolyn says. “It’s hard, of course, on the other person. You hate to see them suffering more than anything. But I know someday he’ll be flying, and then I’ll be jealous.”
Having hospice care for her husband has enabled Carolyn to get their affairs in order. Their three children are involved in all the major decisions.
“Hospice’s main goal is to keep him pain-free and allow him to die with dignity,” Cassie says. “We supply walkers, canes, all the nursing – we’re talking skilled nursing as well as CNAs – anything that’s palliative toward his hospice diagnosis.”
Don and Carolyn are not afraid to talk about death, but Cassie says that’s not always the case.
“It’s not the patient – they know why they’re on hospice. It’s more the family [who struggles],” Cassie says. “You’ve really got to walk a fine line with some families because they have not quite accepted it and they don’t want to talk about it. Most of the time, the patient is willing. They want to know what to expect.”
Hospice caregivers help the survivors prior to and after the patient’s death by soothing confusion, alleviating anxiety and helping with closure. Studies have shown that people who use hospice have an easier grief period.
“Once the patient passes away, I do what is called bereavement. It’s 13 months that I’ll keep in contact with Carolyn,” Cassie says. “I’ll send her out mailings once a month. I’ll stop and see her, bring the dog a treat – that’s important, too.”
Hospice providers believe that every person deserves to be pain-free with dignity. While it may be difficult to accept the imminent death of a loved one, there are many qualified and compassionate caregivers who can guide you through this phase of life’s journey.
“Death is as important as birth because we’re coming into this world or we’re going out of this world,” Tami says. “They are both very important aspects of our lives. We can celebrate death as much as we can celebrate life.”
Recommended reading for hospice patients and their families:
“The Final Act of Living” and “Gone From My Sight” by Barbara Karnes.
Look under “Home Health Services” in the yellow pages for a hospice provider in your area.
“Death is as important as birth because we’re coming into this world or we’re going out of this world. We can celebrate death as much as we can celebrate life.”
– Tami Slatter Executive Director, Hospice Visions, Inc.
Don and Carolyn Coon, along with their dog Squirt, are grateful for the hospice care provided by Cassie Tracy.
By Coreen Hart
Photos by Jason Lugo & Ryan Howe