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In Akron, this hospice center tends to those without housing, caregivers

Grace House resident Sara Reece pets her cat Ben inside her room at the hospice center on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Grace House resident Sara Reece pets her cat Ben inside her room at the Akron hospice center on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

A new nonprofit organization in Akron is providing people without stable housing or caregivers with end-of-life care.

Grace House, in Akron's North Hill neighborhood, opened to residents in August.

Hospice nurse Holly Klein opened Grace House after seeing the need for this service in Akron for many years. She visited patients, who didn’t have anyone to help them, dying of heart disease or cancer in uninhabitable warehouses, under bridges and in motels.

“When you are dealing with a terminal illness and you can't even find safety, you can't get to self-realization or estranged relationships or life review because you're in survival mode,” Klein said.

It took eight years to bring Grace House to fruition, said Klein, who modeled her comfort care home off Malachi House, a hospice house for people with unstable housing in Cleveland. But centers that provide hospice for the unhoused are rare. There are only about 40 similar homes in the country, according to Klein.

On a gloomy Tuesday in January, two people were staying in Grace House. Klein and two nurses went about their daily rounds and checked on 75-year-old resident Sara Reece. She was sitting in the recreation area, watching TV and coloring.

The staff asked how she was feeling before Klein noted she seemed talkative and lively. The day before, she took a long nap on the couch.

Reece had been at Grace House for nearly two months. She was referred to hospice when her lung condition became so bad she was no longer able to draw breath on her own.

"I'm getting up in age," Reece said. "My friends are just dying off like flies. I guess when you get old that's the way it is."

Before arriving, Reece lived alone. Klein said by the time she enrolled in hospice care, the fire department had disconnected her gas stove, because she had left it on too many times. Reece struggled with episodes of confusion and because of her health issues could no longer go to the grocery store, Klein said.

But Reece also didn’t have anyone to help her. Nieces that lived a couple hours away were her only family and could only visit occasionally. She doesn’t have much money, but she has too much to qualify for Medicaid-covered care in a nursing home.

Klein said they see a lot of the people in circumstances similar to Reece’s. Sometimes people try to pay for a caregiver they really can’t afford, but more often they try to manage on their own, she said.

“A private caregiver … can be thousands of dollars a month,” she said. “A lot of those people fall into the gaps of, ‘who cares for me?’”

Grace House 05161.jpg
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Grace House resident Sara Reece was referred to hospice care when her lung condition became so bad, she was no longer able to draw breath on her own. Before arriving, Reece had lived alone. "I feel wonderful here," she said of the Akron center.

But Grace House extended a place to Reece — where she would get warm meals, a comfortable room and companionship. Her room is one of six, each equipped with a hospital bed, a lift chair and a table.

Reece’s closet is filled with thick cotton sweaters and fuzzy slippers. Photo collages of smiling family members are displayed around the room.

"I feel wonderful here," she said. "I would miss this place if I had to leave."

But Reece almost didn’t come. She said she didn’t want to have to leave behind her naughty tabby cat, named Ben. To her surprise, Grace House staff told her she could bring him with her.

“He can't roam around freely like he used to,” Klein said. “But he gets to be with me and that's a big plus because I wouldn't know what to do without my cat.”

Grace House is funded by grants and donations. It provides around-the-clock care to residents free of charge. To qualify to stay at the care home, people must be enrolled in hospice, have limited income and be without a suitable caregiver.

Cuyahoga Falls resident Phyllis Croghan volunteers once a week.

“[Volunteers] are dressed just like we would be if we were at home,” she said. “We have a living room here and the bedrooms for the patients. The staff here treat it just like you would be treated if you were at home and taken care of in that same way. We are family.”

Sometimes Croghan cooks a resident’s favorite meal, other times she helps bathe them. Sometimes they just sit together.

“You can hold their hand. You can rub their arm. You can talk to them. You can pray with them,” she said. “You can just be a presence for them to know that they are not alone.”

After the end comes, residents are often cremated at a local funeral home.

Klein, the founder of the center, said when she just found out many of the residents’ remains were left unclaimed, the home decided to build a garden where they will eventually scatter their ashes and where friends can come visit.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.