Skip to Content

Dennis and Donna Oldorf Hospice House of Mercy: Meeting community's need for compassionate end-of-life care

Few local building projects have been anticipated with as much passion and excitement as the Dennis & Donna Oldorf Hospice House of Mercy, currently nearing completion on a site behind the MercyCare clinic on Blairs Ferry Road. The facility represents the culmination of a community-wide campaign to create a dedicated hospice house to provide compassionate end-of-life care for patients and families in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area.

 "This is a dream come true," says Jan McGuire, R.N., a 15-year Hospice of Mercy nurse who will work at the hospice house. "Ever since I came here we've been waiting for a place where people could come and receive excellent care and be supported. It's thrilling to be part of this."

The new facility is designed to provide a warm, homelike environment where patients can live their final days in peace and comfort, cared for by professional Hospice of Mercy staff members with hospital-standard medical resources. Open to any area hospice patients, it will offer pain and symptom management for patients and respite for caregivers.

Embraced by the community

Plans for a local hospice house were spurred by hospice volunteers, patients and family members led by volunteer Bill Elkington, who spearheaded a drive to collect more than 3,500 signatures to raise awareness of the need for a hospice house in 2005. Their efforts were bolstered by Donna Oldorf, who made a lead gift of $1.1 million to the project in memory of her husband Dennis, who was a Hospice of Mercy patient prior to his death in August 2005.

As plans for a hospice house began to take shape, the Hall-Perrine Foundation awarded a $1.7 million matching grant in support of the project, and Mercy Medical Center donated land valued at $700,000 as a site for the hospice house.

Last June, the Mercy Foundation launched the Sharing the Journey campaign to raise $6 million for construction of the house and creation of an endowment to provide funds for those unable to pay for care. The response from the community has been overwhelming, states Foundation Director of Development Diane Stefani, noting that more than 1,700 gifts have been made to the campaign.

"It's heartwarming to see the broad base of support throughout the corridor," she says. "The generosity is a tribute to Hospice of Mercy's reputation for high-quality care and the desire to have a hospice house in our part of the state." 

The campaign has received gifts from local organizations and service clubs, businesses, employee groups, and even children from a local soccer club. The Cedar Rapids Garden Club is providing plans and materials for the hospice house garden and General Mills has pledged to stock the pantry at the house - two of many organizations and individuals supporting the project in countless ways.  

Among the hundreds of individuals who have made gifts to the Oldorf Hospice House is long-time Hospice of Mercy volunteer Dan Leary, whose late wife Lola served as the first Hospice of Mercy chaplain and was a hospice patient before her death in 2004. 

After they had visited a hospice house in a smaller community, says Dan, Lola felt strongly that a city the size of Cedar Rapids should have a dedicated hospice house. Knowing her long-held desire for such a facility, he made an initial gift to the campaign last summer, then decided to make a more substantial gift before Christmas.

"I have three children and eight grandchildren," he explains. "I figured up what I usually spend on Christmas for them, then made a gift to the hospice house for that amount in memory of their mother and grandmother. They were overjoyed." His gift enabled him to place a brick honoring Lola in the walkway leading to the house. "This will give us a visible way to see her impact on the new house," he adds.

Meeting a need

Hospice is a special kind of care designed to ensure that each person's final days are lived with joy and serenity, with a focus on physical, emotional and spiritual comfort.

 "Hospice care is at-home care whenever possible," emphasizes Hospice Director Leanne Burrack. "But it's not always possible to pull together enough caregivers to stay with a person or to manage pain and symptoms feasibly at home. This will be the next best thing to being at home."

Burrack cites recent situations when patients could have benefited from the availability of a hospice house.

"We cared for a veteran who had difficulty going to the VA Hospital in Iowa City. He was homeless for a time and was staying in an old car with a friend. He would be driven to the office for the hospice nurse to provide care.

"We also have couples where both partners need care. Recently an elderly man who was very frail and ill was trying to care for a wife with advanced dementia. We also provided pain and symptom management for a three-year-old girl who had constant seizures. Her parents struggled to continue working and care for their other children while keeping her at home."

When patients can't remain at home due to the nature of their illness or a lack of able caregivers, says Burrack, the Oldorf House will offer an alternative.

A place of compassion and comfort

"The patient rooms are the focus of the hospice house," Burrack stresses. "The rooms are bright and sunny places where loved ones can gather, with individual patios and comfortable recliners with wheels, so patients can go outside."

The facility also includes a large kitchen, a chapel and library, a fireplace, and room for children, as well as space for the multi-disciplinary hospice staff of nurses, therapists, social workers, chaplains and volunteers. It will also serve as a center for bereavement counseling and support groups.

"People will be greeted with a place of respect and comfort," says Burrack. "This will not be a clinic or an apartment building. As you arrive at the house, you truly get a sense that you are on sacred ground."

Adds nurse McGuire, "People have a right to die in comfort and dignity and to call the shots for themselves as long as they're able. This is a place where we can fill that need and make sure they are not alone at the end of their journey."

Be part of the journey

"It will take the whole community to make the hospice house successful, from bed-side volunteers to people who garden," says Hospice of Mercy Director Leanne Burrack. For more information about volunteering at the Oldorf Hospice House of Mercy, contact the Hospice of Mercy Volunteer Office at 398-6288.