New Southern Tier facility for end-of-life care models itself after Syracuse's Francis House

Jan 28, 2016

As the baby boomer generation ages, more and more Americans are planning for the end of life. In the Southern Tier, a new home for the terminally ill has been in the works for months, and it's modeling itself after Francis House in Syracuse.

Construction is well underway at Mercy House, in the old St. Casimir's Church in Endicott. Mercy House will be a home for terminally ill people who have six months or less to live. 

The idea has been in the works for over a year and the site broke ground last fall. The stained glass will stay, but the building will be divided into 10 resident rooms, a lobby area, kitchen, chapel and other spaces. It's kind of a unique thing for the region it will serve: Broome, Tioga and Chenango Counties. 

"This is a non-profit, non-denominational organization," said Dave Deangelo, the director of operations. They hope to raise $2 million for construction and first-year operations. "We are not eligible for federal and state funding, insurances, things of that nature....Basically, it's all donations."

Deangelo says some residents might have long-term health insurance that could provide some money.

End-of-life care

Doctors at Lourdes Hospital will determine if a person is suitable to live at Mercy House, but there won't be any medical staff in residence. Lourdes will make visits to residents to provide hospice care. If the facility develops a waiting list -- a likely scenario -- priority will go to those who don't have family that can care for them at home.

Mercy House bought the old St. Casimir's Church. The stained glass is staying, but church is being divided to have 10 resident rooms, a kitchen and other spaces.
Credit Bret Jaspers / WSKG News

Deangelo says they'll have two residents to start when they open in February. They'll scale up from there, with hopes of reaching the full capacity of 10 residents by the end of the spring. Because residents will likely be there only a few weeks, Mercy House expects to house 162 people annually by the third year.

Francis House

Just up I-81 is the inspiration for Mercy House: Francis House in Syracuse. Sister Kathleen Osbelt started it in 1991 and the home celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. Osbelt says her inspiration came from caring for people dying of AIDS in the 1980s.

"They were frequently just ostracized. Cared for yes, but always in an isolation room in a hospital," she said.

Osbelt says she tried to get others to open a house for the terminally ill, but eventually she and her fellow nuns did it themselves. It has 16 beds now but when Francis House started, it had only two.

"Anyone who's trying to start a home like this, I tell them, 'it takes a lot of patience and you have to go slow.'"

Like Mercy House, Francis House considers itself a home, not a medical facility. Hospice workers travel there to give medical treatment -- they're not employed by the home. It has on-staff home health workers and hundreds of volunteers.

The Need

Mercy House wants to provide this service for the Southern Tier. In grant proposals, it points to a strong need for a 24/7 facility for the terminally ill. The census estimates almost a quarter of the people in Broome and Tioga Counties are 60 years old or over. The estimate is higher in Chenango County. Beth Hickey, at Lourdes hospice, says increasingly, she sees people who don't have family nearby to provide care at the end of life.

Adding to that, Dave Deangelo at Mercy House says the culture has changed.

"People are starting to think more and more about not just the quality of the life that they live as they're going along, but the quality of their death," he said.

That's something Susan Shubmehl talks about. The Syracuse resident is a Francis House volunteer and says she gets more out of the experience than she puts in.  It might help that Shubmehl is a former kindergarten teacher.

"A five-year-old needs as much comfort as an 85-year-old when they're scared. And a five-year-old will go in the bathroom at school and yell 'mommy' and an 85-year-old might yell out of his bed for his wife or his mother," she said. "It's a lot of the same thing. People want to be touched, they want to be reassured."

Shubmehl has experienced Francis House from a different side, too -- her father-in-law died here. "It really is a family," she said.