After his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969, George Sanders became her sole caregiver. The couple was married 62 years and according to family members, it was a loving marriage.
Last fall however, George shot his wife to death in their home. The couple’s health was declining and according to George, Virginia begged him to kill her. The Arizona man pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to two years probation in March.
Bobi Martinez of Americare Hospice said Virginia’s life didn’t need to end so tragically. Caring for an elderly spouse or other family member can become a grueling affair, but it isn’t a journey that’s meant to be taken alone.
Martinez, the Catholic mission coordinator for Americare, said that if patients receive the palliative care they need and families have adequate support, desperate situations like that of the Sanders family can be avoided.
Part of the problem, she said, is the emotions that are often stirred up at the mention of hospice. People may have had a negative experience in the past with hospice and they are reluctant to reach out for help as early as they could or should.
“Sometimes families are hesitant to contact us because they are afraid of what that’s going to mean,” Martinez said. In their minds, hospice means their life is going to end very soon afterward. And that might be what it means, but not necessarily, Martinez said.
“We have had people under our care for one to one-and-a-half years,” Martinez said. “And we may serve them again in the future.”
More than anything, Martinez said, she wants Catholics to know that “we respect life until its natural end. That helps them not be so hesitant.”
The Catholic faith and keeping Catholics connected to their parish community is a major component of what Americare provides.
“Our goal is to make your faith part of your death,” Martinez said. She contacts the patient’s parish and asks for a priest to visit and has Catholic volunteers who visit and pray with patients and their families. There’s a prayer support group and patients receive blessed sacramentals such as rosaries, scapulars and crucifixes.
“Too often, people aren’t able to get to Mass and slowly get isolated and disconnected from their community,” Martinez said. “People get lonely and desperate.”
Barbara Bourgeois was her husband Lee’s caregiver until his death last July. When it became too much, she turned to Americare. The couple was married 58 years.
“They saw what our needs were before we even knew what they were,” Bourgeois said. “They were wonderful.”
Martinez visited the couple several times to pray with them and she asked their pastor, Fr. Charles Goraieb, to visit as well. Lee was added to the prayer list.
“They built everything into Lee’s care,” Bourgeois said, “the physical, the emotional and the spiritual. They were just amazing.”
Peggy McClain cared for her mother Marge until her death from cancer at age 87 last August.
When Marge learned that Americare is the only Catholic hospice in the Phoenix metro area with approval from the Diocese of Phoenix, she wanted to know more.
“The staff there was unbelievable,” Peggy said. “There were a few nurses in particular and they were incredible. Whatever you needed, they were very soothing.”
Bobi Stich, the pastoral care coordinator at St. Theresa Parish, worked with Americare to care for Kurt, a man in his early 50’s with advanced colon cancer. He died last month. Kurt was estranged from both his family and the Church, about to lose his apartment and in pain.
“When you work with the Catholic directives [for end-of-life care] it’s absolutely beautiful,” Stich said. “He had an awful lot of baggage.”
Americare helped Kurt reconnect with and be reconciled to his family. Near the end, he was able to go to confession, receive Communion and was still participating in a Bible study.
“Americare said, ‘Let us walk this walk with you and let us help you.’ They sat and listened with him, sent people to help him with pain, made sure he had enough to eat,” Stich said. “They worked with him not only physically but spiritually.”
Due to his young age, Kurt was not on Medicare. He and others in similar situations benefitted from the funds donated to Americare’s non-profit foundation.
“No one is denied hospice because they can’t pay,” Martinez said.
To find out more or to donate or volunteer, call (480) 726-7773 of visit americarehospice.org.