Hildegard House Provides Compassionate End-of-Life Services
Writer / Angela Boggs
Visit Hildegard House and you’ll notice a striking quilt made by local artist Penny Sisto, depicting the 12th century saint for whom the building is named. Hildegard of Bingen was known for music, as well as her medical writings and holistic approach to healing.
The name is a natural fit. Hildegard House, set in a former Ursuline convent in Butchertown, provides end-of-life care for patients with no home or family to care for them. Funded by donations, the home provides a hospice team including a nurse, aide, social worker and chaplain. Meals, laundry and housekeeping are provided.
Renovations began on the building in 2015 and the first patient was accepted one year later. Most residents are at the last three months of their lives, and cannot afford caregivers. More than 100 residents have received necessary care at the home since it opened.
Founder and Executive Director Karen Cassidy is a former palliative care nurse for KentuckyOne Health.
“If you don’t have a home, or if you don’t have family to take care of you around the clock, you can’t access hospice,” Cassidy says.
As a nurse she saw people who could not get hospice care, and she wanted to create a place where they could get help and not spend the end of their lives alone.
There is no charge for residents at Hildegard House’s three bedrooms. It is operated by more than 40 volunteers, known as Compassionate Companions, working five-hour shifts. They become like family to the residents, doing all that family members would do. This includes fixing meals, handling personal-care tasks like brushing teeth, and even simple needs like bringing drinks and washcloths to residents.
“That’s really our mission – to provide a home and someone to care,” Cassidy says.
Because residents change their address, Hildegard House actually becomes their home. The average stay is about three and a half weeks. One previous resident was there for more than nine months, and a patient named Thelma even celebrated her 102nd birthday at the house. She had never married, and had no children or other family.
There are family reconnections too, and Cassidy recalls a patient named Linda who reconciled with her two sons.
Referrals usually come from Hosparus. Hospice care treats patients’ symptoms, but they may be released to go home. If patients can’t be alone, Cassidy will evaluate to determine if they are an appropriate fit for Hildegard House, and if beds are available.
Because the facility provides 24-hour care, Cassidy says “it can be challenging, but it is such a blessing to watch volunteers provide care for the end of life. This compassionate community has formed. We’re helping the city of Louisville to grieve. We don’t talk about that as a society. People call to talk about people, someone they love, someone they know who died.”
The community is responding to the facility’s mission. Twenty volunteers from the Jefferson County Master Gardener Association help to maintain the gardens.
“It’s so peaceful,” Cassidy says.
A prospective Eagle Scout and members of his family and troop recently volunteered to build storage shelves for the basement. Additional community members have donated amounts from their stimulus checks.
“In our training we talk about how we are just companions for people at the end of life,” Cassidy says. “It’s their journey. They chose how they want to die.”
This includes medications. Cassidy recalls a patient named John who was adamant about not wanting morphine, even though he was in pain. He simply wanted someone to sit with him. He explained that he was a recovered addict.
“We serve people of faith or no faith,” Cassidy says. “We provide care for undocumented immigrants who can’t access health care.”
Another resident, a previously homeless veteran who had served in the Navy during Vietnam, described the facility as the “best bed and breakfast in Louisville.” He was there for six weeks but had no visitors.
“We found veterans who gave him a proper burial at the military cemetery near Fort Knox, with a motorcade, gun salute and a service, so he died with dignity,” Cassidy says.
Training sessions for new volunteers are held every other month. Everything else is operated by Cassidy, a volunteer coordinator and part-time nurses.
Hildegard House was recognized with a $100,000 award from Premier Inc. in 2018, and Cassidy herself was an AARP Purpose Prize winner last year.
An annual golf scramble in October at Heritage Hill Golf Club in Shepherdsville provides fundraising and sponsorship opportunities. More information is available online.
Although Hildegard House is currently nonoperational due to the pandemic, there is still a need for donations to pay for mortgage and utility costs.
“Most of our volunteers are over 60, and the risk for them is high,” Cassidy says. “If we had to quarantine, there wouldn’t be anyone to care for our residents. We plan to open as soon as it is safe.”
Food and furniture is donated, and donors bring meals and send Kroger gift cards for fresh food.
“The sweetest donations are from individuals who realize how blessed they are to have a family or resources to take care of them or their family members,” Cassidy says. “No one should have to die alone, and those donors seem to realize how blessed they are to have family support.”
To volunteer or donate, or to refer a patient, visit hildegardhouse.org for more information.