L to R, Sharon Keegan, Tara Graham, Judy Peterson and Dr. Taina Clough cut a bright blue cake to celebrate the first birthday of the new Visiting Nurse Association Respite House in Colchester. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

A year after its grand opening, the Visiting Nurse Association’s Respite House in Colchester has played host to a wedding, baby shower, memorial service and family reunion, all while providing hospice care to 50 percent more people than last year.

Volunteers, medical professionals and administrators alike celebrated the new house’s birthday on Monday with a bright blue sheet cake, offering hugs and lauding the efforts of their coworkers.

Debuted last September, the site is dedicated to providing quality end-of-life care to terminally ill residents across Vermont. The Colchester location sits on 25 acres of land on Route 7 and replaced the Williston Respite House, built in 1991.

Most notably, the new hospice facility increased patient bed capacity from 13 to 21 and added a spacious living room with a fireplace, outdoor walking paths, multiple kitchen areas, a children’s play space and several private family rooms.

“I’m so proud of our dedicated, compassionate staff and volunteers who have embraced the move to the larger, state-of- the-art house and the opportunity it has afforded us to care for more Vermonters during the last chapter of their lives,” VNA president and CEO Judy Peterson said in a written statement.

“I’m thrilled the vision we had for meeting the increased demand for residential hospice services, shared by our generous donors, led by Lois McClure and Holly and Bob Miller, is now a reality.”

The extra locales have since allowed families and residents to move through a challenging time with more options, Respite House administrator Sharon Keegan said. Along with practical additions, like in-room showers, the increased space can offer refuge for anyone feeling overwhelmed by their interactions.

“People could have a possibly confused notion about what it means to come to the Respite House,” Keegan said. “Once they come … they just see beauty and lightness.”

Tom Paquette, a longtime social worker in charge of patient intake at the house, says he’s also seen more connections between residents and families who didn’t previously know each other, a trend he attributes to the communal spaces.

A silent call system has also removed the frequent electronic buzzes or pings in patient rooms, a noticeable difference for those transferring from a hospital setting. Oxygen systems embedded in the wall add to the homelike atmosphere, too, removing the excess heat and noise of the traditional machines, Paquette said.

“Families feel like they have space,” said Tara Graham, executive director of the VNA’s hospice and palliative program. “Just being able to consider something different for themselves.”

And while the Respite House offers the most clear physical manifestation of hospice care, Dr. Zail Berry, associate medical director of hospice and palliative care services, and medical director Dr. Jaina Clough both noted almost all of the services staff can provide in the Colchester building could also be provided in home.

To keep up with increased admissions, the number of hospice volunteers has grown by 25 percent, many hailing from the Colchester area, Graham said. In total, Respite House volunteers provided over 12,000 hours of support since last September.

That includes serving over 1,500 meals and running nearly 2,000 loads of laundry along with office support, companionship to therapy dog visits, music and more.

A spacious family room was a welcome addition at the new hospice site. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Two of those longtime volunteers, Carol Bitter and Pat Myette, say it was clear a year ago they desperately needed the additional space to meet demand. Volunteer teams can now reach staff more easily when they have questions and move around the expansive kitchen without constraint as they cook meals for residents.

Several fundamental things have remained steady throughout the move, though. Both women said residents sometimes just want someone to sit with them and offer a hand to hold.

That level of care holds true for all residents, Keegan said, regardless of their ability to pay. Many come to the Respite House without a “Hollywood story,” she said, their lives impacted by a variety of challenges.

“They’re served consistently with love, gentleness, respect and then they look at how that shifts who they are. They maybe have never felt love; they’ve never felt respected,” Keegan said, eyes welling with tears. “It might be five days of their life, but that leaves a potent impression that you too matter.”