September 28, 2006

New Hospice Makes Dying more Nice

New hospice tries to make dying a little more nice

Dying is never considered a particularly pleasant affair, but seeing as it's one of the few things in life that's inevitable, cross-cultural, and affects everyone, we may as well make the most of it.

That's the idea behind the Bobby's Hope House, Atlantic Canada's first stand-alone hospice for people with terminal illnesses, which opened last week in Saint John. "Dying is more than a medical event," said Sandy Johnson, the executive director of the Saint John hospice. "It is a life event and hospice supports people and families to hope and cope." The mostly volunteer based organization has been struggling to get a home of its own since its 1983 inception. In the early years, the hospice focused on bereavement services and information and education for the terminally ill and their families. The new space allows the group to add a 'lunch and learn caregiver program' and more day time activities for people on the way out of this world.

The house itself is 100 years old with ornate fire places, crystal chandeliers, hardwood floors, large windows, backyard garden and a front porch overlooking the park; definitely something to get excited about. Even if you're dying.

The new pad gets its name from Catherine "Bobby" Lawson, a 20-year veteran of hospice volunteering in New Brunswick, who died of cancer in March. The success of Hospice Saint John and similar programs around the country is spreading to other areas of New Brunswick. Hospice Moncton came together two years ago. And hospices in Beausejour and Fredericton are just getting started.

"Hospice offers free emotional, spiritual, practical, social and grief support services that are otherwise not available in the community," said Ms. Johnson. "On any given day, we are supporting over 250 people; last year, we helped over 600 people in total."

"Since the creation of the hospice more than 20 years ago we have donated more than 100,000 to this very worthwhile project," said Jane Barrie, Executive Director of the Saint John Community Foundation, a philanthropic group and one the Hospice's many donors.

Hospices don't get much support from the government. Johanne LeBlanc, media relations officer for New Brunswick's Department of Health, refused to comment on the opening of the new house in Saint John as she didn't have any information on the program.

As per usual in health-care, governments are unwilling to invest in new treatment methods, even if they would likely save money. "Today - over 200 people with a palliative diagnosis live and die in an acute care hospital bed (outside of the Palliative Care Unit) because they can't stay at home due to a lack of resources," says Sandy Johnson. Keeping people in hospital is usually the most expensive method of treatment.

"Over 80 per cent of people die of a life threatening illness (that's over 4,000 people a year in our province) and could benefit from hospice support," Johnson notes.

It seems like there are two ways to leave this world in style and grace.

The first comes from individuals like Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemmingway, who at age 61, stuck a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was bored and didn't like being old, I guess. When the passion of life grows old, like a tired love affair: end it.

The second path: to something else, or total nothingness, is being cleared by hospices in New Brunswick. And they're living and creating on their on terms, allowing people to spend their last days; drinking tea and playing board games with friends and family. And reminiscing on the bad and good while contemplating humanity's future that we all hope won't be the ugly.

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