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End-of-life care home to open for those facing death alone

By Kathleen Wilson
March 16, 2012

The tidy house in Thousand Oaks looks conventional enough, but inside organizers hope to plant the seeds for a movement.

Our Community House of Hope is one of a handful of care homes in the nation designed to provide care and support for needy people facing death alone. Founders Teresa Wolf and Ruth Klein expect the residents will live only a week or two on average, but they hope to make their last days some of the residents’ best.

“Up to the last moments of life, it’s about living, not dying,” Wolf said as volunteers and staff put finishing touches on the house that opens March 26.

After more than six years of planning, the opening comes at a time when growing numbers of terminally ill people are isolated, social service officials say. They lack family and friends to be with them as they die, as well as the money to hire caregivers.

One in three California seniors lives alone, Wolf said. A survey showed that 30 to 50 people a month in Ventura County and northwestern Los Angeles County could use this type of end-of-life care, she said.

As the huge wave of baby boomers begins to die, the demand will only grow, said Victoria Jump, director of the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging.

“What we see is a lot of referrals to our agency for people who are 60 and 61 who are in worse shape physically than somebody in their 80s and 90s,” she said, tying the decline to poor diet and exercise.

Wolf and Klein hope their idea will spread, noting they can only serve four people at a time. Habitat for Humanity and Many Mansions, both affordable-housing agencies, support the concept. They also see the facility as an educational center for college students, bereavement groups and education of the public.

Wolf and Klein, both of Thousand Oaks, are best friends who worked together at a nonprofit agency where they helped families facing the death of a loved one. The two nurses share a passion for their cause.

They have been slowly raising money over the past several years, and have enough to run for six months, Wolf said. But they expect gifts from individuals, corporations and perhaps foundations will keep it going. A part-time marketing consultant is helping them raise funds. Their roster of volunteers numbers 140.

“Everything from the furniture to the paint on the walls has been donated,” Klein said.

The house is equipped with ramps for wheelchairs, and the garage houses an office for the staff. But otherwise, the home shows no sign of its purpose: it has a cheery kitchen, a yard studded with flowers and trees, and paintings and a quilt hanging on the walls.

They plan to bring in art and music therapists and let the residents control their schedules.

“If you want ice cream for breakfast, we don’t care,” Klein said.

Organizers plan to serve 160 people a year in the four-bedroom leased home, and ultimately build an eight-bedroom center.

The service will be free to the residents. To qualify, individuals must be at least 18, have a prognosis of less than three months to live, be connected to a medical hospice that will oversee their medical needs and have no adequate caregiver or way to pay for caregiving.

State officials puzzled over how to license the operation, ultimately deciding it fit best as an residential care facility for the elderly, Wolf said. Another like it opened in the late 1980s in Santa Barbara, but she knows of no others in the state.

Staff members have been showing off the home at 348 W. Avenida de Los Arboles with a series of open houses. Three are planned for the public within the next three days. The first is scheduled from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, with two more from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.

Similar facilities exist in Denmark and England on a much larger scale. But there is no public financing for them in the United States, so Wolf and Klein established a nonprofit organization to provide the care.

Wolf said the group cannot replicate the European facilities, which are financed with taxes.

“We have to create this model in our community,” she said. “There is no state funding, no national funding for end-of-life care.”

Dr. John Horton, medical adviser for the facility, sees the home as a launching point for a long-overdue discussion on death.

“This is not a strength of Americans,” said the Westlake Village general practice doctor. “We want to live forever and be young forever. Death is not part of our conversation. My passion is not only to relieve the suffering of people that fall through the cracks, but really initiate a serious educational conversation that will hopefully spread throughout the country. This is a good place to begin it.”