A Dying Wish

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

Quinn put her vision into practice a few years later by opening two Anam Chara homes -- one in Boulder and one in Denver, at 3119 Josephine Street. The Denver home can serve eight people at a time; the Boulder home, when it was open, had the capacity for ten. At either home, people could be assured of a comfortable existence for the rest of their lives. The residents don't have to be elderly -- although most are -- nor do they have to be terminally ill; they simply must need assistance with daily living. Family members are encouraged to visit anytime, and the staff provides 24-hour care. Both homes have large, well-tended yards designed to serve as retreats. Some residents have their own bedrooms while others share. All get home-cooked meals. They watch television in the living room. They work on arts and crafts and listen to music. All religious holidays are honored. Birthdays are celebrated. So are deaths.

The approach to caregiving is holistic: While some residents are visited by hospice workers and take prescription drugs to control pain, they also receive aroma, massage and herbal therapy. "We don't just drug them out," Quinn says. "We hug them, sleep with them, love them. Love is the most potent prescription you can give."

When a resident dies, his body often remains in the home, on dried ice, for a few days while relatives and friends say goodbye.

Boardmember Mark Berzins is keeping a close watch on Anam Chara's finances.
Anthony Camera
Boardmember Mark Berzins is keeping a close watch on Anam Chara's finances.
Boardmember Mark Berzins is keeping a close watch on Anam Chara's finances.
Anthony Camera
Boardmember Mark Berzins is keeping a close watch on Anam Chara's finances.

Because of Quinn's work, Chuck Stout, executive director of the Boulder County Health Department, nominated her for a $130,000 Leadership for a Changing World grant from the Ford Foundation; Quinn was recently named a finalist. "Anam Chara was ahead of its time," Stout says. "We need alternatives to a medicalized death experience for people. There are a lot of people who don't want to be warehoused in a nursing home, and Anam Chara has provided that alternative. I would like to see this kind of compassionate care at the end of life in all communities."

"Until Anam Chara came around fourteen years ago, there was no in-home setting in Colorado to go to die. People had to go to a hospital or a nursing home," Quinn says. She speaks of Anam Chara as though it has been around that long, but the first Anam Chara home, in Denver, didn't actually open until 1992; the Boulder home followed in 1997. And Anam Chara isn't the first organization to offer an in-home setting for elders; the state health department started licensing personal-care boarding homes in 1987.

To Quinn, though, dates aren't important, and neither are the dollar amounts in her budget. Love and compassion for elders are the most important parts of her business.

But love and compassion can't pay the bills in the expensive end-of-life industry, and Quinn has often struggled just to meet her payroll. For the past several years, she has somehow managed to find last-minute windfalls to cover her monthly costs -- a new private-pay patient to replace a Medicaid patient who died, or an unexpected grant or donation. Her business has subsisted on unwavering faith. But Quinn's faith, as well as her stubbornness, have led to Anam Chara's undoing.

Anam Chara opened without a solid fundraising plan or a realistic budget. But it took nine years and a new group of shrewd boardmembers for Quinn's lack of business acumen to catch up with her.

Quinn had never employed anyone to raise money or expand the business, but more than a year ago, she decided it was time to hire a development director. She'd met Karin Simpson two years earlier, when the women were on a Boulder County Aging Services Task Force together. The group was charged with defining the problems that society will face in another ten years, when the largest segment of the population -- the baby boomers -- grow old. Simpson had been working in nursing homes for twelve years, and she liked the Anam Chara philosophy of allowing people to decide how they want to handle their own deaths. So when Quinn asked her to join the board of directors -- which then consisted of Quinn and two other women -- Simpson agreed. She was on the board for a year before Quinn hired her to be the full-time development director. But Simpson didn't know the first thing about fundraising, and Quinn certainly wasn't equipped to train her.

"The whole time I was on the board, we only met a couple of times," Simpson says. "What I learned over the first six to eight months on the job was that a nonprofit needs a strong, active board. I went to grant-writing and fundraising workshops and learned that foundations won't even consider you if you have a ghost board, so I told Peggy this, and she gave me the go-ahead to recruit more boardmembers." The two women began to look for people from diverse backgrounds who had good business sense and a passion for elder care.

But when Simpson began interviewing prospective boardmembers, Quinn says she felt like she wasn't part of the process. "When I told her I wanted to meet a specific candidate, Karin would say, 'You're micromanaging and not letting me do my job,'" Quinn recalls. "Certainly the founder ought to be involved in the decision-making."

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