SEATTLE—The Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco suspended all residential hospice services at its iconic care facility, the Guest House, earlier this month, citing a lack of funding to maintain its unique caregiving environment for the terminally ill.
The Zen Hospice Project began during the peak of the AIDS crisis in 1987, and the Guest House opened its doors in 1990. In late June this year, the Guest House was temporarily closed for renovations. However, as of early August, work had begun to clear out offices and furniture from the five-bedroom, three bathroom building in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, just blocks from the famed Haight-Ashbury.
“The model of care here is very unique,” executive director George Kellar told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. “It focuses on the social, emotional, spiritual, and comfort needs of our caregiver families and the people they’re caring for.”
The Guest House offered round-the-clock nursing care and spiritual guidance for terminally ill people, with a nearly one-to-one ratio of staff to residents. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, journalist Michael Cabanatuan explained:
What made the place truly special, though, was its traditions, like the flower petal ceremony, where family, staff and residents would gather on the deck and sprinkle flower petals over a deceased resident on a gurney before the person departed the house one final time. (San Francisco Chronicle)
A year ago, the Guest House was the focus of a feature article by news website Business Insider titled, “This could be the best place to die in America,” which stated:
The Zen Hospice Project reimagines the experience of dying. Staff and volunteers believe that the best end-of-life care immerses terminally ill patients in the human experience, by delighting the senses, offering comfort and community, and reminiscing on bygone days.
When a terminally ill resident tells the kitchen manager that he’s not hungry for food or drink, but would take a slice of chocolate cake, she whips up a batch of cupcakes. (Business Insider)
Kellar, a Zen Buddhist practitioner, is holding out hope that a wealthy benefactor might come through to cover the mounting costs of running the hospice in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.
“We’ve been struggling through 2017,” Kellar told San Francisco-based media outlet KQED. According to many donors, he continued, priorities have changed since the 2016 election, with more pressing issues such as voting rights, equality for women and minorities, and immigration becoming more central. Homelessness, which has surged in San Francisco in recent years, has also garnered increased attention.
The Zen Hospice Project has not ended entirely, with two programs still ongoing: one that provides volunteer caregivers for the palliative care unit of San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, and another offering a training course for families, volunteers, and professional caregivers in taking care of both themselves and their patients. Both of these programs continue to be entirely funded by donations. The Zen Hospice Project website also describes other ongoing work as including “mindful caregiver education” and “open death conversations.”
On the future of the Guest House project, Kellar is more ambiguous. “It’s not what I expected. I guess it’s a lesson in impermanence. And a lesson in ‘things change’ and to not get as attached as we are because everybody here is very attached to this,” he observed. “We would rather say suspended than closed.” (KQED, San Francisco Chronicle)
This could be the best place to die in America (Business Insider)
Beloved San Francisco Zen Hospice Project Confronts Its Own End (KQED)
San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Guest House closes as donations drop (San Francisco Chronicle)
Zen Hospice Project