Author: Susan Abell, Administrative Coordinator for Vermont Respite House, Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties
Everyone who comes to live at Vermont Respite House has a story. Maybe it’s a life review they share with a volunteer or staff person as they try to make sense of their lives. Maybe it’s the funny story about the bear in the yard that gets told at every family gathering. Some stories start – and end – here, and will become part of family lore for years to come.
Jake and Bonnie’s* story is one of those. Diagnosed with lung cancer, Jake managed to remain at their Westford family home for awhile with his wife caring for him. But, his needs increased to the point where Bonnie couldn’t care for him alone any more. Their daughter, Michelle, would make the 45-minute drive to her parents’ house to help, sometimes twice a day. But, Michelle had a job and a family of her own, and Dad’s illness was getting harder to manage, especially for Michelle’s frail mother. So, with the advice of Jake’s doctor and their VNA home visiting end-of-life-care team, the family moved Jake to Vermont Respite House.
Even during our fairly mild winter, there were a few times when the snow made for treacherous travel. One snowy evening, after visiting Jake at Respite House, Michelle was driving her mother home when the car slid off the road and flipped into a ditch. Michelle was wearing her seat belt and walked away unharmed, but Bonnie was riding in the back without a seat belt, and she was thrown from the car. She broke her back and was taken by ambulance to FAHC.
Not wanting to upset Jake with news of the accident, Michelle would tell her Dad when she came to visit that Bonnie was feeling under the weather. And Bonnie would call him from the hospital to chat. The staff was careful not to say anything to Jake about the accident, and the social workers and hospice chaplain worked with the family on a plan to let Jake know as Bonnie’s condition improved.
Jake further declined and slipped into a non-responsive state before he could be told of the accident. At the same time, Bonnie was declining, too. Her back was too damaged to repair with surgery, and her condition worsened. Michelle was now caring for two dying parents in separate locations. With the support of the VNA hospice team, Michelle decided to move her mother to Vermont Respite House.
Although resident rooms are designed to accommodate one patient, an exception was made for Michelle’s parents. A second hospital bed was moved in and staff let Jake know (even though he was not completely conscious) that Bonnie would be there soon. For four days, they lay in separate beds, but turned to face each other. Michelle and her family could now sit with both parents in one location, leaving the hands-on caregiving to the Vermont Respite House staff.
Jake died first, passing peacefully, still facing his wife. Bonnie gave a low moan upon hearing the news, and lingered another five days before following her husband. Michelle was present when both of her parents died. She was so grateful to staff for having both parents not only under one roof, but in the same room together.
At Respite House, we pride ourselves on being a special place where these stories can happen. We offer a home-away-from-home where families can be themselves and do what they need to do to care for loved ones in their final days. And, we offer our services to all who turn to us in need, regardless of their financial situation.
It’s because of generous donations from our VNA friends, that we’re able to continue providing this care. Special events, like our Vermont Respite House 5K Fun Run and Jiggety Jog on May 12, also give people the opportunity to support Respite House so we can be here for families like Michelle’s who face the often unexpected experience of losing family members.
*Names have been changed.