There were audible gasps as visitors walked through Colchester’s new McClure Miller VNA Respite House, debuted to the public on Monday.
The site, dedicated to providing quality end-of-life care to terminally ill patients across Vermont, sits on 25 acres of land on Route 7 and replaces the Williston Respite House, built in 1991.
Most notably, the new facility increases patient bed capacity from 13 to 21. It also features a spacious living room with a fireplace, outdoor walking paths, multiple kitchen areas, a children’s play space and several private rooms for families to gather and reflect.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, Rep. Peter Welch and Colchester town manager Dawn Francis were among the political figures in attendance at a ceremonial ribbon cutting on Monday morning, many sharing their personal experiences with hospice care.
The ceremony also honored benefactors and the new building’s namesake, Bob and Holly Miller and Lois McClure. The trio has dedicated time and money to improving hospice care across the state.
Hospice is a specialized medical care program focused on relieving pain and symptoms in patients suffering a terminal illness, according to the Visiting Nurse Association. Hospice is usually administered in homes.
Residents of the Medicare-certified Respite House face a terminal prognosis, but have care needs that impede their ability to stay at home. At Respite, a clinical staff and team of volunteers work to serve their medical, emotional and spiritual needs.
“This house is much more than a place where people come to die,” Holly Miller told the crowd. “They come to live out their lives as fully as they can and as well as they can.”
In its 25-year history, Respite has served nearly 3,000 individuals – and the need for end-of-life care in the community is growing.
According to figures provided by the VNA, the number of individuals seeking hospice services in the state has increased by more than 50 percent in just 10 years. The Respite House alone has seen a 46 percent rise in the same timeframe.
VNA president and CEO Judy Peterson said patients are never turned away but are occasionally placed on a waiting list. The Williston location was operating at 98 percent capacity, she said.
The facility comes with an $8.6 million price tag; $5.5 million has been raised to date. The VNA says it hopes to raise the remaining funds by next spring.
The new space is clearly larger, Peterson said, but also immeasurably more efficient.
Benefactor Bob Miller had a hands-on role in that effort, leading his company REM Development and Construction Crew. The team constructed a model patient room in an empty warehouse, Miller said, and invited staff members to offer any suggestions – including things like light switch placement –before the design was replicated 21 times over.
“We feel that we’ve hit this wonderful mix of being state of the art while still maintaining a homelike atmosphere,” Peterson said. “We really want people to feel that this is their home away from home.”
Those improvements include individual showers and accessible bathrooms. The paved walkways outside are intentionally wide, allowing residents to get some fresh air no matter their current mobility.
“People don’t have to feel confined to their rooms, even if they’re confined to their beds,” Peterson said.
The VNA planned to move current Respite House residents from Williston to Colchester on Wednesday and Thursday, Peterson said. UVM Medical Center donated two fully staffed ambulances to transport those patients.
The paved walkway was just one stop on the tour given to members of the public, who came in droves during an open house late into the afternoon.
There was plentiful laughter and a few tears as folks sung the praises of the Respite House, many recalling their own experiences at the Williston location.
Nancy Carlson, Respite House clinical supervisor, said staff are used to seeing that range of emotion.
“People live until the moment they die,” Carlson said. “People think of hospice as sad and somber, but it’s quite the opposite.”
Longtime Respite volunteer Pat Myette said laughter is always encouraged, but notes the atmosphere can sometimes get a bit boisterous as residents and their families move through different phases of grief.
The addition of multiple family rooms, Myette said, will allow loved ones to process as they wish in a space of their own.
“We have large Vermont families that can take over our current house,” Carlson added. “We have the ability to better absorb that here.”
Carlson said she’s most excited about the clinical improvements the new space offers, including a track system that can safely transport residents through the building and an invisible paging system that allows staff to communicate without disruption.
For Myette, it’s the little touches added by the architects.
At the groundbreaking, she said, staff members were invited to make an intention as they placed a flower in a pile at the site. Those flowers were then mixed into the concrete poured for the foundation.
“That’s the kind of mindfulness that’s part of this house,” Myette said.
When contemplating the move, Carlson recalled a patient who asked her nurse, ‘Is this the place where people die?’
“[The nurse responded], ‘This is also where we’re living,’” she said.
The public is invited to attend a closing ceremony at the current Respite House in Williston on September 24. For more information, visit www.vnacares.org.