Navigating the Ultimate Transition

Death is difficult not just for the dying, but for their loved ones as well. Life’s final days exact a physical, emotional and financial toll on all concerned. For thousands of people, the transition has been made more comfortable, and more dignified, through the efforts of Hospice by the Bay.

“We’re really the river guide,” says Mary Taverna, president and CEO of the Larkspur nonprofit. “We’re there to support them, to guide them if they run into rough waters, but it’s their journey.”

Founded in 1975, Hospice by the Bay (formerly Hospice of Marin) is the nation’s second-oldest program of its kind. It provides end-of-life care to about 250 patients from Marin, Sonoma and San Francisco. Patients typically have less than six months to live and have opted for treatment that alleviates suffering rather than attempts to cure. Care is provided at the patient’s home, hospital or residential facility. Working with a patient’s doctors, the organization provides medical and nursing assistance as well as personal care, counseling and spiritual support.

Such treatment can be profoundly helpful for the patient’s families too. Mill Valley resident Alison Shapiro says she could not have cared for her husband, Bob, during his last days without the aid of Hospice by the Bay. He began receiving hospice care on a Thursday at his home and died the following Wednesday. Within that time, the organization sent a counselor to talk with Alison about the process of dying, had a nurse evaluate Bob, sent over supplies and medications and obtained a hospital-style bed within a few hours. Bob wanted to die at home, Alison says, and the hospice team made that possible.

“To be able to know that a person is dying and you don’t have to intervene and keep them alive when it’s time for them to go, and to do it in a way that’s supervised, that’s an extraordinary service,” she says.

Like many others, Shapiro called Hospice by the Bay at a doctor’s suggestion when it became clear her husband was deteriorating rapidly. She wishes she had called sooner.

Taverna hears that comment often, yet she understands why so many delay making the call. “People see it as defeat, as giving up hope. It’s not giving up hope. It’s redefining that hope.” Hospice care is a way to provide comfort and quality of life during a person’s journey toward death and may also offer the chance to explore unresolved personal or financial issues.

Like other nonprofits, this one faces funding challenges. Medicare and many private health insurers pay for a portion of hospice care, but not always the full amount. And as a part of the health care delivery system, hospices are vulnerable to funding cuts. To make up the difference and be able to serve the un- and underinsured, Hospice by the Bay relies on donations and fundraising events like the upcoming Open Homes tour of Eichler houses.

Financial hurdles aside, the organization has seen tremendous success in its 32 years—notably a wider acceptance of the hospice philosophy by medical professionals and society at large. When it began, Hospice by the Bay served one patient; today it employs the equivalent of 180 full-timers who have medical, nursing, social services and counseling skills.

Yet its true success is intangible, Taverna says, measurable only in terms of the people it has served. “Of greater importance to me is that we have helped thousands of individuals get through a phase of life that is incredibly challenging.”

Tour Homes to Support Hospice

“Open Hearts Open Homes: Eichler Homes and Exotic Cars” features homes in Terra Linda and Lucas Valley; rare and unusual cars will also be on display. The event benefits Hospice by the Bay Foundation; September 15 and 16, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; $50 for one day, $80 both days. 

For tickets, call 415.526.5500.