When Emy Johnson’s husband, Dan, became sick in 2017, she wanted to do whatever it took to keep him at home, where he was most comfortable. But caring for him around the clock was a huge task. He needed help with everything from medication to eating to getting around, and Emy couldn’t do it all alone.
After hearing the Johnsons could use some help, Seward Area Hospice stepped in. Tonya Foote, RN, operates the only hospice in the area, with the help of volunteers and funding from Providence Health & Services Alaska. In 2018, Providence provided Seward Area Hospice with $84,472 to be spread over three years. Before 2017, there were no hospice services in Seward, but Providence has helped change that.
“Our population is around 5,000 people, and we are a small community,” said Foote, who provides services to the population from Lowell Point to Moose Pass at Mile 36. Foote works one-on-one with the patients and families she serves. She said a needs assessment for hospice services showed that the program could potentially serve 12 to 15 clients a year, and already it has served 20.
“Plus we’ve had referral and inquiries,” Foote said, “so the need is really here.”
In fact, the demand for hospice services is growing nationwide, as the life expectancy of the population increases. The United States Census Bureau in September 2018 stated that by 2030, 1 in every 5 residents in the United States will be of retirement age, outnumbering children for the first time in history – 78 million versus 76.7 million, respectively.
That aging population will also need health services when faced with end-of-life diagnoses. Hospice provides critical care during the last remaining time a client has to live – usually just a few months, but sometimes longer than a year or more. Nurses, caregivers and volunteers provide basic hygiene care, comfort, guidance, pain management control and sometimes just a shoulder to cry on for those caring for their loved ones.
The program also provides for the community grief support and education, guidance and information on advanced directives, and annual hospice volunteer training. All of this provides critical support to the families of a client as much as it does for the clients themselves.
For Johnson, the best part of having hospice come in and help care for Dan is that she and her son were not alone.
“It’s unbelievable how much they helped,” said Johnson, who was married to Dan for nearly 32 years before his passing. “Tonya was just amazing, and my husband really, really liked her so much. He would get anxious when I would leave, but not when she was there. She kicked me out because she knows I was afraid to leave – a lot of times she says, ‘go get the fresh air’ and I would go out and just take a break.”
To this day, Johnson said her relationship with Foote continues. There are days when she still deeply grieves the loss of her husband, and she knows Foote cares and will listen to whatever she has to say.
“I just need somebody that I could trust and could talk to – I still go out to her and talk to her,” Johnson said.
Foote says the goal of hospice is to provide that special care during the most painful part of one’s life – it’s end. It is stressful on families, emotionally draining and often confusing. To be a part of that time, she says, is a blessing that she doesn’t take for granted. She feels compelled to honor that time and allow families and their loved ones to face mortality with dignity and grace.
“Dying affects your physical health, spiritual health and mental health,” Foote says. “It is such a privilege to walk into someone’s home when they’ve been told they are at the end of their life, and to help them face this with grace. They take the lead, and we are there to meet them wherever they are. I want the takeaway for them to be, ‘Wow, we are not alone on this journey.’ ”
Johnson said Foote and her staff of volunteers fully accomplished that goal.
“She used to come and sit down and would not leave right away, she was never rushed,” Johnson said. “When Tonya was here, my husband was just as comfortable as he can be, and that mattered to me so much.”
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