By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor
Anyone who has prepared for a visit to a dying loved one knows what to expect: harsh hospital smells, tubes and I.V.s, buzzing florescent lights, stiff white sheets on a folding bed.
Somehow, seeing loved ones in such alien surroundings can make their illness seem even more wrenching and unnatural.
That’s what makes Francis House so different. It is a place for specialized, 24-hour support for people at the end stages of a terminal illness. Anyone is welcome at Francis House, regardless of ability to pay, religious affiliation or whether the person has a family to support them.
While those who come to Francis House are generally within three months of dying, they are in a home, not a hospital. There are plates of homemade chocolate chip cookies in the tidy kitchen. There are handmade quilts on the beds and big windows looking out on neighborhood kids walking home from school.
In order to keep Francis House feeling like a home, and not an institution, there is a limit of eight residents per each of the two houses on the Francis House property.
And of course, no home would be complete without a motherly figure there to make everything better. At Francis House, these kind, devoted women are everywhere from the reception desk to the kitchen to the bedside.
Sally Whaley has been a caregiver at Francis House for about a year now. She administers medications, asks residents if they’d like to try to eat a little bit and checks to make sure they are comfortable. She also holds their hand, sits to chat with them and gives them a hug and a kiss on the forehead before moving on.
“I try and take time with each resident to learn something new about them every day. It’s all history to me — where they came from, what they did,” Whaley said. “It’s about the friendship. Not just with the residents but with the family, too. I’ve never hit a day where I haven’t felt love here. And if I’m having a bad day or I can’t cope with something I can walk into anyone’s office and say, ‘I need to talk.’”
While she said she wouldn’t call herself comfortable with death, she said she’s become quite familiar with it. If the resident has family members, Whaley said she and the staff will try to prepare them by explaining the different stages of death, what changes in the skin or patterns of breathing might mean.
Sister Kathleen Bruzga, OSF, said that one of the most difficult aspects of her work at Francis House is when she doesn’t get the chance to really know a resident before they die. Sister Kathleen lives in the Franciscan Motherhouse adjacent to Francis House, and she walks over every day to visit each of the residents.
“If you go into a person’s room and you feel that you can make them smile or make them happy just by being with them, then that’s the best part of all,” Sister Kathleen said.
She said she had the opportunity to meet the pope in 1972, and he said that women religious, like the apostles, must show Jesus to the people. Since then she’s devoted herself to helping those suffering with illness or disease.
“If I could bring any of Jesus’ peace or concern or love to the people or their family, then that’s what I would like to do,” she said.
Mary Ellen Anastasi and Trish Barsanti are two of the fleet of volunteers who spend time at Francis House. There are revolving shifts of 18 volunteers a day who come to greet residents, make meals, tidy the kitchen and put things back where they belong.
“You keep this like you do your own house,” Anastasi said looking around the kitchen. She’s been volunteering at Francis House for seven years. “You get to know the families of the people you meet and everyone’s really friendly.”
Barsanti nodded. “The people that are here a long time, you’ll get to know their extended family and sometimes they’ll stop in and say hi,” she said. She has volunteered at Francis House for 15 years.
When asked if they ever find it difficult to come to Francis House, they look at each other and shrug. “It’s really not a depressing place,” Anastasi said. “No, I like it here,” Barsanti smiled, sliding a plate of cookies across the counter. “You’ve got to try one of these.”
Then a few people came in from the rain. “Hey, I know that lady!” Anastasi said and was off to give her a big hug.
Volunteers are necessary to keep the quality of care as high as it is at Francis House. It costs $6,700 to care for one resident for one month. While families are asked to pay toward this if they can, no one is turned away because they can’t afford to pay. “Oftentimes people have nothing, and that’s okay with us,” said Beth Lynn Hoey, director of development.
But since Francis House is not a licensed medical facility, the organization receives no government money. It does not receive funding from the Syracuse Diocese or organizations like the United Way either. “Our budget is $1.2 million a year and that comes from donations,” Hoey said.
Those who can give do, she said. And those who can’t might give their time or talents instead. One man made a cabinet and shelves for the chapel; someone else decorated the altar. Hoey said a group of men come every Thursday morning to fry up some bacon because they insist that a house should smell like bacon. Sister Jane Bourne, OSF, has set up a children’s corner and put together folders with candy, crayons and a card for tiny visitors to decorate and give to a loved one.
Hoey also pointed out how all the quilts on the beds were made by a local quilting group. She showed one on a neatly-made, empty bed. On the bed was a sign reading, “Barbara.”
“We’ll leave the room like this for a day or so in reverence for her memory,” Hoey said. “She was a family member. That way caregivers can come in and just sit and remember her.”
Of course, a significant part of the job at Francis House is building relationships, however brief, with the residents. No matter how many times one goes through it, it’s still difficult to lose a friend.
Whaley said there was a death three months ago that still resonates with her.
“It never gets easier,” Whaley said. “For me, in a way, I hope it doesn’t, because when it gets easy I shouldn’t be doing this work anymore.”