Hospice provider to close its doors
If we can keep our volunteers together, that would be ideal. If no one organization can take on all the different kinds of volunteers, then we may look at different organizations being interested in different aspects.
— Kate Williams, End of Life Services
MIDDLEBURY — In addition to having claimed the lives of 242 Vermonters (as of Tuesday), COVID-19 has extinguished cherished businesses and organizations that have been unable to survive the pandemic’s toll.
Sadly, the Middlebury nonprofit End Of Life Services, or EOLS, will join that list come the end of June, its leaders confirmed this week.
EOLS board president Daphne Diego explained several factors combined this spring to end the nonprofit’s run.
Diego cited the imminent departure of senior staffers, dwindling resources partly due to the difficulty of fundraising during the pandemic, and social-distancing protocols, which are essential in preventing COVID’s spread, but which undermine the in-person support critical to hospice care.
“We have made this decision based on the last year. COVID certainly had an effect on us,” Diego said during a Monday Zoom meeting that included fellow board members Liz Markowski and Kate Williams, as well as EOLS Program Director Laurie Borden.
While EOLS formed in 2019, its roots go back almost four decades. The organization was a merger of two longstanding nonprofits: Hospice Volunteer Services (HVS) and the Addison Respite Care Home (ARCH). Local residents recognize the “ARCH” acronym from the handful of end-of-life suites that bear that name at Porter Hospital and Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing.
Through a combination of paid staff and a group of more than 100 trained volunteers, EOLS has offered hospice and palliative care, vigil seating, bereavement support, and other comforts to the dying and their families.
Unfortunately, EOLS is unable to recover from recent setbacks, mostly related to the pandemic.
COVID restrictions have precluded volunteers from entering patients’ homes and — until recently — hospitals and nursing homes.
As with other small nonprofits, holding fundraisers during the pandemic has been virtually impossible. Donations are the lifeblood of organizations such as EOLS. And its financial standing worsened recently after Addison County Home Health & Hospice chose not to renew its contract for EOLS services. That contract was more than 16% of EOLS’s annual revenue stream.
“The loss of the renewal of that contract was a financial blow, there’s no doubt about that,” Williams said.
Maureen Conrad, marketing and development director for Home Health & Hospice, explained that her organization has decided to shift to a new hospice volunteer model.
“(It) is similar to other hospice volunteer programs throughout the country in that the volunteer staff and the clinical staff work as one team within the same organization,” she said in a statement to the Independent. “During the pandemic, we have developed an online self-paced training program which has been successfully completed by a committed group of volunteers. We have continued to serve our patients and families as in the past, meeting their individualized needs. Our program is growing daily and we welcome trained volunteers from EOLS to join our expanding team of volunteers.”
Adding to EOLS’s woes was recent word that Borden would soon move to Montana and the organization’s bereavement counselor, Margaret Olson, would join a part-time private practice.
Diego said all of these setbacks gave the EOLS board “an open palette of, ‘What do we do next?’”
So the board and interim Executive Director Susan Cartwright held many conversations about whether EOLS could rebound, or whether it would be wiser to close and pass on its mission — and corps of tremendous volunteers — to another like-minded Addison County organization.
With great sadness, they chose the latter option.
It’s clear that any organization would be better off after inheriting EOLS volunteers. Each has had 30 hours of in-person training, along with specialized instruction in various end-of-life disciplines — including as “bereavement companions” to support someone mourning the loss of a loved one, and assisting people in planning advanced directives.
In 2019, EOLS volunteers drove a combined 21,540 miles to conduct 1,265 patient visits. They provided a combined 2,242 hours of service during those visits and were present during the final hours of 94 patients.
During the COVID pandemic, Borden delivered an online class to prospective helpers about the fundamentals of end of life care, “with the thought of when we can go back in person, they can get the second half of that training to become a volunteer.”
Those volunteers are currently organized into teams that assist the dying and their families at the ARCH suites, Vergennes Residential Care, and the two Middlebury retirement communities: Eastview and the Residence at Otter Creek.
“If we can keep our volunteers together, that would be ideal,” Williams said. “If no one organization can take on all the different kinds of volunteers, then we may look at different organizations being interested in different aspects. Advanced-care planning might be something very interesting to one organization, and bereavement to another.”
The next few months will be sad ones for EOLS officials, as they reflect upon the end an organization that has helped many Addison County families confront death with comfort and dignity.
Markowski got her first look at Addison County services for terminally ill patients several years ago, when her father-in-law came to live with her family for what would turn out to be the last nine months of his life. But he wasn’t eligible for hospice care, because rules at that time required a physician to estimate a patient’s illness would take their life within six weeks or less, Markowski recalled.
“It was frustrating to know that hospice care was out there but we couldn’t use it. I had a young family at the time,” she said.
The rules have since relaxed greatly on the use of hospice, Markowski noted. You can now go on hospice care without a defined timeline, and go off again if your condition improves.
“None of us know what’s happening the next minute or the next day,” said Markowski, who’s been an avid ARCH, HVS and EOLS supporter for many years.
Borden will soon be moving away, but she’ll be taking a piece of EOLS with her.
“I have been so honored to be a part of this group of people, from ARCH to HVS,” she said.
“I can’t deny the fact my heart is breaking,” she added, but voiced confidence that “the compassion of our community will kick in, and somehow we’ll all heal.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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