A Dying Wish

Peggy Quinn wanted to make death easier on the terminally ill, but she's made life hard on everyone else.

The white wood house at 1795 Quince Avenue in north Boulder used to be a hive of activity. Young children came to visit their grandparents. Florists made stops there on birthdays and Mother's Day and Easter. Doctors and massage therapists, community volunteers and musicians all came and went. The home, with its well-landscaped grounds, was where ailing elderly people came to spend the remainder of their lives. Now it sits empty.

Two former residents of Anam Chara, a personal-care boarding home that was a haven for the aging since 1997, are now living just a few blocks away with the organization's founder, Peggy Quinn. New-age music plays in Quinn's house. Angel figurines peer out from bookshelves and from above doorways as if keeping watch over the inhabitants. Incense is burning strongly, but not strongly enough to mask the odor of urine. A nurse is there discussing with Peggy and her boyfriend, Don Henderson, the care of a patient named Wanda; she explains in detail how they must administer suppositories for the elderly woman, who is dozing in a chair as they speak.

Another woman, 87-year-old Jong Shim, whom everyone calls halmoni, Korean for "grandmother," is also napping, slumped on a couch between Henderson, a certified nurse's aid, and another caregiver; she's clutching Henderson's arm and resting her head against his shoulder. Shim had been living on her own in New Jersey just a few months earlier when she began suffering serious memory problems and lapses of mental clarity. At the same time, she began having difficulty swallowing food and suffered from malnourishment as a result.

Her son in New Jersey couldn't care for her, so he placed her in a nursing home. When her other son, Jae Shim, who practices alternative medicine in Boulder, visited her there, he was appalled. "It was a huge place with sixty residents. They ran it like a cattle farm," he says. "They were giving my mother psychoactive drugs to calm her down, over my objections, and they restrained her in a wheelchair all day -- even when I was visiting."

Jae Shim had previously met an Anam Chara caregiver through a friend, and he wondered if it might be a better place for his mother. So he visited the Boulder home and talked to the people who worked there and to the families of the residents. He was impressed by the attention the caregivers paid to the residents, and he liked the small, homelike setting.

"I went back to New Jersey and brought my mom here, not thinking it would ever close," he says.

When Jong wakes from her nap, she turns to Henderson. "Bbo," she says. "Bbo." Henderson has learned that bbomeans "kiss" in Korean, and he plants one on her cheek. She stands up and puts her arms around her other caregiver, nuzzling her head against the woman's arm like a cat. Jong loves to cuddle with anyone who will indulge her. Even though she's regaining weight, Jong still feels like a small child in your arms. Despite her frailty, she remains feisty; although she's not supposed to wander outside, as soon as no one's looking, she's out the door and into the back yard. Her penchant for troublemaking keeps Quinn smiling.

Jong and Wanda are living with Quinn now because the Anam Chara home on Quince Avenue was shut down in March, after Quinn and a new board of directors reached a standstill over the organization's future. For the last ten months, Quinn has watched as her mission of making the last moments of life more meaningful for "elders," as she affectionately calls them, has fallen apart.


Quinn has never been good with numbers; they distract her from her purpose. She considers herself a visionary, as do most people who hear about Anam Chara's mission of "nurturing a conscious journey through the passages of life." Quinn began developing that mission even before there was an Anam Chara home.

She spent the first twenty years of her career as a medical technologist specializing in virology and bacteriology at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver. Death in the hospital was a sterile, solitary event; it didn't usually involve family members, and it certainly wasn't celebrated or treated as a passage to something else. When patients died, they were -- and still are -- covered up and carted off to the morgue.

After her own mother died in a hospital, Quinn decided there had to be a more dignified way to handle the last moments of life. She realized what it was when she met Elisabeth Kübler-Ross at an AIDS fundraiser in Boulder fourteen years ago. In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross laid out the five now-familiar stages people go through after they've been diagnosed with a terminal illness or after they've lost someone they love: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The Swiss-born psychiatrist spent the next three decades trying to convince people to come to terms with death, and her work helped the hospice movement gain momentum in America.

Quinn decided to create a place where people could live out the last months or weeks of their lives surrounded by family and friends -- a place where their deaths would be regarded as a transition as natural as birth. But she didn't know what to call it until she attended the 1987 International Conference on Dying, Death and Healing in Scotland. There she met a Scottish man who said her idea sounded like the modern-day version of an Anam Chara, a Gaelic term meaning "soul friend," after the village person in ancient times who assisted townspeople with both births and deaths.

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