MERRIMACK - The stained-glass wall in the chapel of the Community Hospice House depicts a menagerie of creatures peacefully enjoying the forest, water and skies. It's a scene brimming with life.And life is the focus in this place where people come to die.
Dee Pringle's husband, Gene, spent his last two weeks of life here four years ago. Her husband had ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and was receiving medical treatment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Dee, a retired teacher who lives in Amherst, was taking care of him at home. "And I was good," she said. "I was really good."
But as Gene's disease progressed, his doctors recommended hospice care. For three months, hospice nurses provided support and care to Gene at home. Then they recommended a move to the 10-bed hospice house run by Home Health & Hospice Care, a nonprofit agency in Merrimack.
And just like that, the burden of medical care shifted to the professionals, Pringle said. "My role was just to be with him."
She calls it "magical.""Those last few days that are precious, the medical parts are being taken care of and you don't even have to think about that because the trained people have taken over."
It was also a great relief to her husband, she said. "He could relax."Pringle can't say enough about the services provided at the house, from food managers who cater to residents' likes and needs, to visits from musicians, therapy dogs and Reiki massage therapists.
She still gets together with members of a bereavement support group she met after her husband's death and attends some of the monthly educational programs the agency offers.
Her son, Chris, said having the professional staff at the hospice house take over the medical care of his father in his last days was a comfort to the entire family.
Home Health & Hospice Care has its roots in a women's organization that cared for sick mill workers and their children in Nashua in the late 19th century. The Good Cheer Society became one of the first visiting nurse associations in the nation.
Dee Pringle chairs the modern-day Good Cheer Society, which provides financial and other support for the hospice house.
Barbara Lafrance is director of hospice and palliative care for Home Health & Hospice Care. She said she wishes more families knew what hospice can do for them when a loved one is seriously ill.Income is never a barrier to care, she said. While the agency receives reimbursement for patients who have Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance coverage, it provides indigent care for those who do not.
Too often, Lafrance said, the final weeks and months of a person's life are filled with diagnostic tests and aggressive treatments that do little to prolong life — but add enormously to health care costs.
She would like to see more physicians raise the topic of end-of-life care with their patients. "You have to start the conversation in the primary care office when it's not a crisis."
Otherwise, she said, "it's almost like it's too late."
Pringle recalled a woman she met through her bereavement support group.
"Her husband died in the ambulance on the way to the (hospice) house," she said. "It was just the wrong way to go."