Hospice aid lets elderly ill stay at home

February 13, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Joining Hospice Services of Howard County was a relatively simple decision for Priscilla Kocourek and her family.

The 86-year-old Columbia resident has an incurable form of cancer and didn't want to go to a nursing home and be separated from her son, Albert, a Columbia mortgage banker, and her two teen-age granddaughters.

"I wanted to be near them," said Mrs. Kocourek, who lives with the family and was diagnosed last year with melanoma, a skin cancer.

Four weeks ago, Mrs. Kocourek joined Hospice Services, a nonprofit community organization that provides a variety of services to terminally ill county residents and their families.

Since its establishment in 1978, the organization has helped more than 3,000 people face death with the help of nurses, home health aides, volunteers and support groups.

"It's a full array of medical services," said Nancy Weber, executive director of Hospice Services, which has a staff of about 10 full- and part-time employees, including eight nurses, and more than 60 volunteers.

The organization helps those who have less than six months to live and who are ready to stop pursuing medical treatments. The overwhelming majority of its clients are older people with cancer, but hospice officials have begun treating more AIDS patients and patients between the ages of 20 and 60.

"We really have to tailor services for every single client to meet their needs," Ms. Weber said.

The word "hospice" dates to the Middle Ages, when it signified a way station or refuge for tired travelers, the poor or the sick.

Today, hospice denotes a program for the terminally ill founded on the belief that the final stages of life should be lived with the greatest degree of comfort and dignity possible. The modern hospice movement began in England in 1967. The first hospice in the United States opened in 1974.

Hospice Services of Howard County is one of several such organizations in the county. Howard County General Hospital opened a hospice suite in October, and Bon Secours Extended Care Facility is planning to open one for elderly patients soon.

Begun in the mid-1970s, Hospice Services was the creation of Anita Millison, a Columbia social worker whose husband died of cancer. After her husband's death, Ms. Millison formed a support group to help people cope with terminal illness. That group eventually became Hospice Services.

The organization sends nurses, social workers and home health aides into the homes of terminally ill patients. Hospice Services also provides pain-relief medication and symptom management, as well as equipment such as wheelchairs and hospital beds.

Hospice Services charges on a sliding scale and in some cases waives its fees for those who are unable to pay, said Ms. Weber. In most cases, services are covered by private medical insurance and Medicare.

Those services can be extensive.

Every day, for example, a hospice aide checks on Mrs. Kocourek for a couple of hours. And once or twice a week, a hospice nurse visits the woman, examining her and making sure she's comfortable.

Mr. Kocourek said he is able to relax, knowing that his mother is under a nurse's care. He used to worry when his mother was living by herself in a Columbia apartment.

"She would fall down and couldn't get up," Mr. Kocourek said. "It can be very trying not being able to help. You don't know what's happening late at night or what's happening in the early morning."

In addition, volunteers give emotional and practical support to patients and their families, chatting, cooking, or driving them on errands.

Maggie Evans, a Columbia resident whose own mother died of cancer 12 years ago, is one such volunteer. She visits Mrs. Kocourek, often bringing with her videos such as "The Sound of Music" and "The Music Man."

"We have a good time," Ms. Evans said. "We talk about life, family histories."

Mrs. Kocourek enjoys the attention as well.

"They were so kind, the nurses, everybody," Mrs. Kocourek said.

Although Mr. Kocourek worries less about his mother now that she has joined the hospice program, he and his two daughters, ages 14 and 17, still are grappling with the emotional issues surrounding Ms. Kocourek's impending death.

"There's a lot of depression that sets in and should be talked about," said Mr. Kocourek, who noticed that his daughters seemed to withdraw last year when they learned that their grandmother had cancer.

Lyz, a ninth-grader at Glenelg Country School, seemed uncomfortable talking about her grandmother's illness, but she said Hospice Services is good medicine for the entire family.

"She's doing better," Lyz said, noting that her grandmother enjoys plenty of companionship from hospice workers. "I think it was the best decision."

The emotions expressed by the Kocoureks are not uncommon for families coping with terminal illness.

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