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Taking the fear factor out of hospice with coffee and chat

Death is still a taboo subject for many, but Carris Health Rice Hospice hopes to break the ice with a series of informal gatherings at local coffee shops this fall to encourage people to start talking about end-of-life care.

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Shelly Woltjer, left, and Mary Beth Potter of Carris Health Rice Hospice visit LuLu Beans in Willmar this past week to launch a series of "hospice cafes" to raise awareness of the benefits of hospice care at the end of life. Anne Polta / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR โ€” Death probably isn't most people's topic of choice for a cozy conversation over coffee. But on a chilly fall morning at LuLu Beans, there sat staff from Carris Health Rice Hospice, ready to invite the reluctant, the bashful and the curious to learn more about hospice care at the end of life.

"It's the kind of topic people don't want to talk about," confided Mary Beth Potter, hospice director.

But she hoped that just by being there, some seeds of awareness were being planted.

"Hospice is such a wonderful program and has so many benefits for patients and families," she said. "We want everyone who is eligible to use hospice."

In the ongoing quest to educate the public, Rice Hospice launched something new this fall: a series of "hospice cafes" at coffee shops in Willmar, Spicer and Paynesville. The idea borrows a page from the death cafe concept, an international movement of social gatherings where people can talk openly about death and dying.

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Death is still a taboo subject for many, Potter said. "In general, society doesn't like to talk about death. That's the huge elephant in the room."

Coupled with persistent misconceptions about what hospice care is and isn't, the result is that many patients enter hospice too late for them and their families to fully benefit from what the care can offer, Potter said. Although the average length of stay for Rice Hospice patients has gone up slightly in recent years, it's still just 35 days, she noted.

Misunderstanding is a common barrier, said Shelly Woltjer, Rice Hospice registered nurse case manager. "When they hear 'hospice,' it's often 'I'm dying.' But hospice from our perspective is bringing you living for the rest of your days," she said. "It can be very much the beginning for that next chapter in your life."

"Our goal and our purpose is to enhance your life for whatever length of time you have," Potter agreed.

She and Woltjer had a table staked out Thursday morning by the front door at LuLu Beans in Willmar. They had a stack of shiny Rice Hospice brochures to hand out. There were few takers among the customers stopping in for their morning caffeine, although a couple of people stopped to say hi and offer an encouraging word.

That was OK, Potter and Woltjer agreed. Being visible was what mattered, Potter said. "Whatever we can do to raise awareness."

Laure Swanson, owner and manager of LuLu Beans, sees the hospice cafe as a service to the community. "It might not be my mother but it might be my friend's mom and I can say, 'You know what? I heard about hospice.' You've got to spread the word," she said. "This is another way to do that."

Upcoming hospice cafes will be held Oct. 10 at LuLu Beans in Willmar; Oct. 10, Oct. 24 and Oct. 31 at The Kofe Shop in Spicer; and Oct. 9, Oct. 16, Oct. 23 and Oct. 30 at Salon 27 and Firehouse Coffee Co. in Paynesville. All times are from 8 to 9:30 a.m.

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"We're trying to make a change and we felt this was a good venue," Potter said. "It's all about getting creative in how to reach people."

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