Sarah House executive director Kate Grove didn’t want to talk much about the financial burdens the COVID pandemic has placed on the eight-bedroom home that mainly provides end-of-life care for the financially disadvantaged, as well as support services for HIV/AIDS sufferers and short-term stays to alleviate stay-at-home caregivers.
“Everyone’s told the COVID story. It’s super tired,” she said, while acknowledging that her organization’s revenues did fall by nearly 30 percent over the past 12 months.
“We all know that nonprofits are struggling, and it’s been a pain.”
Instead, like everyone at Sarah House, Grove has surprisingly upbeat attitude given that she deals daily with impending death. Instead, she wanted to put some attention on what the nonprofit has been able to do during the pandemic: Stay open as a family-friendly facility for those who need loving care.
“The story of Sarah House was one that’s been consistently having an open-door, open-arms policy and throughout the pandemic, we kept our arms and doors open,” she said. “Of course, there were guidelines and protocols that we had to follow, but we did everything we could to come together and keep that focus on the residents, because Sarah House, for many of the people who stay with us, [is] a place where they really do not have another option. Closing our doors was something that we absolutely didn’t want to see happen.”
It was largely up to house manager Paloma Espino, who has worked at Sarah House for nearly 20 years — befriending the terminally ill residents, meeting their needs, helping them make their rooms into an extension of their family homes — to figure out the adjustments to meet the “new reality,” which, she said, took a lot of acceptance as well as ingenuity.
“It was really hard for the first couple of months, because Sarah House is all about gathering people in a community, which is everything that COVID was against,” Espino said. “We are all about inviting the family to the bedside and to be a part of the process, gathering everyone to our dinner table so we get to know the family which helps us get to know our residents better. But COVID was telling us to close your doors, protect your community, don’t let anyone in.
“So, for the first death we had during the pandemic, the best that I could offer them was to have the family sit outside of the room with the sliding door open as their sister took the final breath. That was really hard.”
Later, Sarah House found ways to make adjustments as needed, including a woman in a coma who the hospital discharged because there was nothing left to do. The twin sister and daughter came every day and stood vigil outside of her door, but the resident — who Espino said wasn’t eating or drinking, but also never woke up — kept hanging on to life.
“There was nothing left. Her body has so little, just skin and bones. And I kept asking the nurse, ‘What do you think is keeping her here?’” recalled Espino, whose care for the residents expands to whatever is necessary.
“Her daughter was really crying and asking God to please just take my mom. It’s painful to see her like this.”
That’s when the staff figured out, she probably just needed her twin sister to hold her hand before she let go.
“COVID was telling us, don’t touch, don’t come near, but the twins had come into the world together and she probably didn’t want to depart until she was given permission by her twin… So, we put a gown and all of the PPE on her, moved her sister’s bed right next to the screen door that opens to the garden and she was able to hold her hand and tell her it was OK to go. An hour later, she was gone.”
While Sarah House is mostly known as a warm and welcoming final destination for terminally ill patients, the facility also accommodates some for much shorter stays. That includes HIV/AIDS patients who may have strayed from their medication protocols and need focused attention and good nutrition to get back on a path of health.
“They might just need to get their medication straightened up and their diet treatment so they can go back out prosper,” Grove explained.
And Sarah House also opens its doors to taking in patients simply to provide respite for family members who have chosen to be full-time caregivers at their own homes.
“The person who is ailing will come stay with us for five days, say, just so the family can have a moment to breathe,” Grove said. “It’s incredibly difficult for people to go from just being a loved one to having to be a caretaker, bathing and cleaning and feeding and caring for someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They just need a moment to breathe and recharge.”
Sometimes, though, the caregiver family members need some convincing even to spend five days away, Espino said. Such was the case a few years ago with a mother who didn’t want to leave her dying 25-year-old daughter in any else’s care even though she’d spent more than 18 months in around-the-clock care.
But her doctors told her she was headed for a nervous breakdown if she didn’t take a break. Espino sat for hours with the mother as she toured Sarah House, explained that she could visit 24 hours a day if she wanted to, even sleep there on the couch in her daughter’s room although that would defeat the purpose of the respite.
It turns out the mother did show up at 5 am the morning after the daughter arrived. Espino was already there.
“I opened the door and she saw me, and she asked, ‘What brought you here so early?’ I said, ‘The same thing as you: Your daughter. You trusted me with her and I wanted to make sure we take good care of her.’ I didn’t hear from her for another two days. She got her rest.”
Whatever the reason the residents come to Sarah House, Espino and the rest of the staff give each resident — and their loved ones — individual care and loving kindness. To the house manager, the exchanges aren’t merely one way.
“Every person teaches you something if you’re willing to pay attention,” Espino says. “Every person here has a life that’s been lived, all of them had so many dreams and desires and maybe regrets. And really everyone here is me. It’s just me in a different way, in a different form and perhaps on a road that I didn’t take. It’s a beautiful thing to remember that the more we think we’re different, we’re actually way more alike.”
That extends to the ways in which people can support Sarah House: large financial donations, small monthly giving, or simply making donations in kind through Sarah House’s online registry at Walmart, where items range from a $317 dresser to glassware, salad forks and even $3.99 bottles of toilet bowl cleaner. Everything is needed and greatly appreciated.
“The way we look at it is that Sarah House holds a big responsibility to be there for the community,” Espino said. “But, by the same token, we would hope that the community would feel the same way about Sarah House, that they hold some responsibility for helping us remain so that when someone knocks on our door, whether it be themselves, their neighbor, their friend, or sister, that we’re still around so that we can help.”