MUNSTER — For the last 40 years, the Hospice of the Calumet Area has provided palliative care to Region residents who have progressed past the point of life-saving medical treatment.
For the last 25 years, it’s operated a residential in-patient facility in Munster where many have spent their final days in comfort while being cared for.
The eight-suite William J. Riley Memorial Residence at 511 Otis Bowen Drive, which provides 24-hour hospice care in a home-like setting, has undergone the wear and tear any house would during that time period.
It’s in need of renovation. So the Hospice of the Calumet Area is launching a capital campaign to raise $1 million to pay for needed repairs, such as replacing the roof and the furnaces and air conditioners in each room.
“We’re very excited about the capital campaign,” CEO Adrianne May said. “It’s the 25th anniversary of our William J. Riley Memorial Residence, the community home where people spend their last days or weeks with compassion and dignity.”
The nonprofit aims to provide compassionate care for those suffering a life-limiting illness, improving their quality of life as their horizon shortens. It seeks to help people and their families “cherish life at a time when others may feel like giving up.”
“A lot of people shy away from death and dying,” May said. “We believe in cherishing the life of our patients in the limited time they have with us. We help them live their last days and cherish the times they still have with their friends and family.”
Now the Hospice of Calumet Area is soliciting donations for capital improvements.
The Hospice of the Calumet Area came about 40 years ago when Bishop Andrew Grutka learned about a new philosophy for caring for people with deadly illnesses that could not be treated any further so that their final days would be free of pain, seeking to bring it to Northwest Indiana.
Monsignor Joseph Semancik, who was the director of Catholic Charities for 38 years, found out about hospice care on a skiing trip with his sister in Colorado and worked with Dr. Al Costello to make it a reality.
“I think Catholic Charities did good work,” Semancik said. “I’m pleased to say that creating the Hospice of the Calumet Area was the most meaningful project I ever did. With families, it’s probably affected close to 100,000 people over the years. It’s immensely important.”
Semancik, 94, is the only founding board member left.
“It’s a five-star hospice. I personally think it’s the best hospice in the United States. It’s taken care of thousands of thousands of people,” he said. “My sister Jane, who was 14 years younger than me, died peacefully there. I brought her back from Colorado. People were able to visit with her and say their goodbyes.”
The hospice brought comfort and closure to Semancik and his sister Rosemary after their sibling’s death.
“Priests have to say prayers during the day and night,” he said. “The last prayer a priest says before his head hits the pillow is ‘Lord, grant me a restful night and a peaceful death.’ I think Jane experienced that.”
The Hospice of the Calumet Area grew over the years as hospice care did in popularity nationwide.
“Bishop Grutka wanted to build a building right away. I explained we couldn’t quite do that and had to take care of people first,” he said. “Ninety percent of people in hospice are in their homes.”
The need for hospice care has grown as families have scattered across the country, the population has aged and the elderly have been forced to care for spouses in many cases.
“Some need a higher level of care because their symptoms are out of control,” May said. “Families used to live in the same communities. Now kids are spread across the country and often can’t get time off work to take care of a parent who’s ill in their own home. There are elderly 80-year-olds taking care of their own spouse when they might have health problems of their own.”
The Hospice of the Calumet Area built the William J. Riley Memorial Residence in 1997 to address a growing need. It was the first free-standing hospice facility in Indiana built as a home and staffed 24/7 with nurses, social workers, aides, spiritual counselors and volunteers, intended to be a “haven of comfort and peace.”
The home has cared for more than 5,400 patients over the past 25 years, serving patients from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties in Northwest Indiana and Cook and Will counties in Illinois. It’s meant to be comfortable with recliners, dining tables, private baths and individual furnaces and air-conditioners in each room.
“Each room has its own air conditioner and own furnace. What’s comfortable for one patient might be freezing for another,” May said. “At the end of life, we want patients to be in an environment that’s comfortable.”
The Hospice of the Calumet Area has cared for more than 22,000 people in their final days, mostly by providing services in the comfort of their own homes.
“It’s basically end-of-life care. Our expertise is palliative care for those who have a prognosis of six months or less,” Director of Marketing and Community Relations Damian Rico said. “A lot of people volunteer because it touched their family. My mom was in the hospice here. It’s just an amazing organization. It’s a home-like environment. They decorate it for the holidays with Christmas trees and lights. It’s a very special place.”
The Hospice of the Calumet Area provides care regardless of the patient’s ability to pay. Last year, it provided $1.8 million in charity and discounted or uncompensated care.
It has faced mounting challenges in recent years, including inflation, declining reimbursement and difficulty staffing its operations.
The capital campaign aims to safeguard the future of the William J. Riley Memorial Residence. It will fund major infrastructure upgrades, including windows, bathroom fixtures and refrigerators in the patient suites. It will also freshen up the grounds with walkways, fragrance and pollinator garden, a labyrinth and a flagpole honoring the veterans who make up 25% of its patients.
“It’s looking a little drab outside. We want the grounds to reflect the comfort inside,” May said. “We’re really excited to start the campaign to ensure this will be a sanctuary for future generations.”
An anonymous donor has already pledged $250,000 in matching funds that will double the value of people’s donations.
“We’re really excited to have that kind of generosity in the community,” she said. “We’re very honored and humbled. There’s only one hospice in the community. We’re celebrating our 40th anniversary of being part of the fabric of the community, of having a special place in the community.”
The hospice will raise funds in a number of ways, including by selling artisan wares and jewelry by volunteers.
Lydia Dershewitz, a volunteer at William J. Riley Memorial Residence and the president of Hospice Artisans, started volunteering 22 years ago.
“The hospice does such wonderful things for patients,” she said. “A couple of years ago a patient was admitted by ambulance all by himself. No one was with him. He was close to death but aware and conscious. I asked him what he would like for dinner and he said, ‘This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived.’ He had no one, but he had us. And we had him. It works both ways. He died a few days later. That man stayed with me and has so much with what we do to this day.”
She leads the hospice artisans who make cards, paperie, jewelry, knits, textiles, scarves and other crafts that are sold. The Hospice Artisan’s wares are sold at the South Shore Arts Gift Shop at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts Center in Munster, Bee Quilting & Such in Munster and online at hospiceartisans.org.
“We need volunteers to do all sorts of things,” she said. “Before COVID, when someone dies, we sent a representative to the wake, visitation or funeral. You can tell how much people appreciate it.”
Hospice volunteers touch the lives of patients and their families, helping them get through a difficult time, she said.
“People come to us at one of the hardest times in their lives,” she said. “We greet them with a great deal of love. We’re in this together.”
Dershewitz’s mother-in-law was cared for at the hospice.
“We saw the other side of it. It was amazing and heartwarming to go through it and she the easier pathway she had,” she said. “When we say cherishing life it’s more than a tagline. Many years ago we had decorated for Christmas time, and a visitor came to the door and asked why we were decorating the house for the holidays. ‘Everyone’s dying.’ No, right now, everyone’s living.”