Dignity in Departing

Hildegard (8 of 17)It’s no surprise that homelessness is a problem in Louisville. But what so many do not consider is what happens to its homeless citizens at the end of their lives. It’s one thing to see someone sleeping on the street, but it’s quite another to ask yourself what happens to that person when he or she is on the brink of death. Karen Cassidy, a former palliative care nurse practitioner, was all too aware of the very real problem of people dying alone on the street and consequently made a choice. She left her work in the medical field and has now dedicated her life to the establishment of Hildegard House, a home offering quality end-of-life care  to those without a home of their own or without anyone to care for them.

“At the hospital, I took care of a lot of people dying at the end of life who didn’t have a home or a family. It was terrible to see them die alone,” recalls Cassidy, who is now the executive director of Hildegard House. Cassidy was familiar with similar organizations – providing care for those who had nowhere to go or no one to help them – in other parts of the country but realized Kentucky had nothing like it. And because hospice programs won’t provide services to those without a permanent address, she took action and created one herself.

Hildegard House became incorporated a year and a half ago, and she and Mark Clore of Clore Construction have been working on its renovations for several months. The house is located in Butchertown at 114 Adams St. and was formerly a convent and a daycare before Cassidy became its newest tenant. She is currently renting the building from the Archdiocese for $1 per month, and the ultimate goal is to buy the building from the church.

KAREN CASSIDY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HILDEGARD HOUSE

KAREN CASSIDY
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR,
HILDEGARD HOUSE

Neither Cassidy nor Clore can remember how exactly she found him, but both admit that as soon as they met, the synergetic possibilities between them were undeniably palpable. “She said, ‘You’re the first guy who didn’t talk down to me just because I’m a woman, as if I didn’t know anything,’” Clore recalls of the pair’s first meeting.

The work the two have done on the house is absolutely astounding, but both contend that it never could have been done without the phenomenally generous scores of others who have come together to make this possible. “This thing has just lit me up,” Clore describes. “I’ve made a contribution, I’ve contributed my time. But my electricians, my plumbers, my drywallers, my floor-finishers – it speaks to them not just me that I’ve brought $90,000 into this place. In-kind work. Work that was just donated.”

And that work has been absolutely tremendous. The house is simply stunning, offering three private beds in a very homey environment. And what’s particularly unique about Hildegard House is how Clore and his team have been sure to preserve the building’s history throughout the renovation process. “We’ve tried really hard to maintain the architecture and look of the original building,” he elaborates.

MARK CLORE OWNER, CLORE CONSTRUCTION

MARK CLORE OWNER, CLORE CONSTRUCTION

When Hildegard House begins to fill up, Cassidy looks forward to offering the community something very special and, ultimately, needed. “We’re not a medical facility; we’re just a home,” she notes, which consequently means there’s no red tape to fight through for residents. All services will be completely free, and no insurance is necessary. With comfortable rooms and friendly volunteers – known as “compassionate companions” – Cassidy looks forward to letting residents pass on in a warm bed with smiling faces all around. “The ultimate goal is that these people can die with dignity and not alone,” she maintains.

The deep worthiness of Cassidy’s cause is unquestionably responsible for why so many have rallied around Hildegard House and worked so hard to get it up and running. For example, Clore took very little convincing to take on the project as he understood just how necessary Hildegard House is. “Just imagine any scenario when a person outlives an only child or outlives their siblings and parents – you know if the guy across the street comes to you, are you going to let him in and die in your house?” he poses. Meanwhile, Clore had a landscaping associate come in and clear out the backyard, and when he and his team departed, they left no bill. “His mom had died recently and had the use of hospice,” Clore relates. “People just know that feeling, and it’s come together in this house.”

Cassidy is also proud that the Louisville community already is illustrating extraordinary reception to Hildegard House. “The community’s been great because we are a community resource,” she emphasizes. “We take care of people with faith and no faith. We’re Kentucky’s only one and are here to serve the Louisville community. And we need the community to continue to support us because we’re taking care of everybody’s neighbors.”

Indeed, Hildegard House does need the community support now more than ever. Thanks to the work of countless volunteers, the house is ready, and all that’s missing is the funds necessary to hire a full-time nurse and full-time volunteer coordinator. Once the house is open, Cassidy anticipates serving 50 individuals per year. “The house is ready, so we’re ready for people once we raise the funds, ” she affirms. Cassidy is confident the funds will indeed be raised as more and more people continue to learn about Hildegard House and subsequently financially support it. The aim is to be fully operational by the end of this spring.

Hildegard (2 of 17)If people cannot financially contribute, there is still a need to build a volunteer force. Compassionate companions will be onsite 24/7, and Cassidy needs more to join the caregiving family. The commitment is only five hours per week, and the work is not only important but immensely gratifying.

Once this location gets off the ground, Cassidy is open to considering the possibility of opening more Hildegard Houses. Even Clore is open to more projects and is actually confident that once the Butchertown house raises enough funds to open, the funding will only increase from there, making more houses possible. “If we got this undertow, I really think donations will skyrocket,” he asserts. “Once it really gets going, there is the thought that maybe we could put one of these in the South End, where there is real need for this sort of thing.”

Hildegard (5 of 17)Indubitably, the need in Louisville for a place like Hildegard House is undeniable. “Last week, I got a call from one of the homeless shelters and they have two people who are ready,” Cassidy says. “We could fill the beds up five times.” Clore echoes her sentiments: “The need in Louisville is more than just three beds.”

The fact that it’s not open and there is such a need only makes the delay of opening that much more lamentable. Cassidy is quick to encourage folks new to the concept of Hildegard House to understand the urgency of its opening and give whatever they can to the project. On April 3 from 2 to 5 p.m., she will host a house blessing at Hildegard House to showcase to the public the gorgeous facility and hopefully persuade attendees to make a contribution. “At the house blessing, the mayor, the vicar general, a rabbi, a Muslim – they’ll all be here because it’s interfaith. We take care of everyone,” she puts forth.

And that’s the beauty of Hildegard House. It will take care of anyone and everyone who needs it. No more dying in the streets or dying alone. At Hildegard House, the end of life is met with dignity and warm, familial care. As Clore simply says, “The real message here is when you’re taking care of someone who’s dying, you’re not trying to bring them to Jesus – you’re there to care
for them.” VT

More information may be found online at hildegardhouse.org. 

Photos by ZACHARY ERWIN

  • texasjo

    Another Mother Teresa (who started just by taking beggars who were dying off the streets and give them a mat, something to eat, and care while dying.