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The Commons: The Best Place to Die?

Remodeling the nicest home in town for hospice

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Holmes Park House

THE VAST MAJORITY (80 percent) of Americans say that we want to die at home—and yet the majority (64 percent in Oregon) don’t. That’s a lot of desire unmet. And among the minority who succeed in dying at home, their success may not turn out to be a cherished or comforting memory for anyone. Why? So many live alone; so many can’t afford the kind of home care that even comes close to being ideal; so many houses are not prepared for dying; and so many relatives and friends really aren’t prepared either. While nobody wants to die amid a bustling hospital or forgotten in a nursing home—and “home” is better than that—is home really the best place to let go? 

The question is worth asking where I live in Oregon because about eight years ago the Southern Oregon Friends of Hospice set out to create the “next best place” for dying at home. After a long search for the ideal place and years of fundraising, they may have succeeded in creating something that’s better than home. The hospice tagline is “Toward a Culture of Mindful Caregiving,” and the mindful choice for one’s last days or weeks might well be the 12-bed hospice they just opened called Holmes Park House.

When the house was built in the 1930s for Harry Holmes, a cofounder of Harry & David, and his wife, Eleanor, it was arguably the nicest house in Medford. The architect was Paul Revere Williams, a famed designer for Hollywood stars who was the first African American architect to join the AIA (and was awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 2017). The Georgian mansion was set on 20 acres, but most of the land has since become a public park. The Holmes Park House is now set on two acres of gardens in the middle of the park. Then and now, the views of the trees and hills are both spectacular and soothing.

“We provide the space that draws out real connections: ‘Will you forgive me? I forgive you. I love you.’”

The result of $4 million in donations to remodel the house (and to create an eight-bed addition) is spectacular and soothing, too. The main house still has the fabulous living areas of the original Georgian estate, but the feeling now is not so much a family home as a luxury bed and breakfast. The grand living room is now for family gatherings and support groups; the sunroom is for quiet reflection and the library/sanctuary now has a collection of spiritual books representing many different faiths. There’s a fine commercial kitchen and cooking staff for patient meals as well as kitchenettes for visiting family and friends. 

On the ground floor, the patient rooms have private baths and French doors to the patio. Upstairs are more patient rooms with Juliette balconies—and a powerful feeling of outside. There are also small rooms for visitors to close a door and be alone. 

The patio still has the beautiful swimming pool for patients and guests. Wine is available (the area is becoming famous for its wines) as well as special chocolates like “Death by Chocolate” and “Go to the Light” by Lillie Belle, a local artisan chocolate maker. Space on the terrace has been set aside for smokers. “We’re not here to change anybody,” says executive director Susan Hearn. “This is the last place they’re going to be.” 

And of course there are nurses stations staffed 24/7—a ratio of one caregiver to four patients. But there’s not the life-saving drama of a hospital. Those battles and decisions have already been decided.

Hearn says, “Those of us who are drawn to hospice care tend to come because it’s real. We provide the space that draws out real connections: ‘Will you forgive me? I forgive you. I love you.’” Such words can be said anywhere, of course, but Holmes Park House may actually make them easier than home. —Stephen Kiesling

The Cost of a Final Stay 

For those who can afford to pay, the Holmes Park House costs about the same as checking into a nice hotel or bed & breakfast. Six “private pay” beds range from $260/day to $325/day or $7,800 to $10,075 per month. The other six rooms are subsidized by bed grants with local hospitals, Medicaid reimbursements, veterans benefits, as well as income from the Hospice Unique Boutique in nearby Ashland. The goal is to be sustainable and accessible to people who need hospice, whether or not they have the means. For more information or to make a donation, go to sofriendsofhospice.org.

WHAT YOU CAN DO 

If you have 10 minutes:

Contemplate the ideal setting you would choose to spend your last days. Assume that for some reason it won’t be your home.


If you have an hour:

Discover what hospice facilities are actually available in your area.


If you have $100:

Donate to the hospice that best reflects where you can imagine yourself.


If you feel drawn:

Work to create the kind of hospice that you first envisioned in your own area. 


Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, cocreator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor at large of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.


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