Monday, May 14, 2018

Omega House offers quality hospice care for terminally ill, welcoming atmosphere and counseling for families

By Vanessa Dietz *

The sign outside Omega House in Houghton beckons people to visit the hospice. (Photos © and courtesy Vanessa Dietz)

HOUGHTON -- There’s a doorbell, but you don’t have to ring it at Omega House in Houghton. Through its figurative revolving door, the 24-7 hospice welcomes visitors, most of whom come to see their loved ones -- quite possibly for the last time.

Here's the main entrance of Omega House, located at 2211 Maureen Lane in Houghton.

Music plays in the background of the renovated house, where terminally ill patients are treated with compassion, respect and dignity by professional, volunteer and family caregivers.

"This is their home," said Omega House Executive Director Mike Lutz, who joined the staff as the first executive director in January 2016. Governed by an 18-member board, Omega House has been in operation since 2005.

"They’re all at different stages of dying," Lutz explained. "People come in all day long or any time (without) restriction. Those kinds of things enhance the quality of life."

The team at Omega House provides around-the-clock services to people who need more care than is available at home in the final phases of their lives.

Eight patient rooms sport private bathrooms, recliners, cable television, individual heating and cooling controls, ample seating for visitors, and large, low windows with a view of the surrounding gardens and trees so even those who are bedridden can take in the scenery. One of the rooms is set aside to provide temporary respite care for individuals recuperating from surgery, illness or hospitalization whose caregivers need a break for whatever reason.

In addition to staff office space and commercial laundry facilities, the house has a living room with a television, VCR, laptop computer and piano, as well as a quiet, meditation room, kitchen, and dining area, all of which are open to patients and their families. The house also has two specially designed bathrooms with walk- or wheel-in showers and whirlpool baths.

Omega House is beautiful inside and out, with an inviting  outdoor patio easily accessed through a side door. Comfortable wicker furniture beckons residents and visitors to enjoy the outdoors when the weather is nice.

Omega House Executive Director Michael Lutz enjoys the spring sunshine on the patio of the Houghton hospice.

The staff regularly perform housekeeping duties and prepare home-cooked meals that are served any time of the day or night to patients. Families are welcome to cook their own favorite dishes there as well.

"You eat when you want to eat," Lutz said. "We’re not that structured here. At home, we eat when we we’re hungry. We encourage families to come in and use our stove. We want our residents to be comfortable."

While the numbers vary, Lutz said an overall average of 5.5 residents stay about 10 days. The house has had around 500 residents, with about 40 new patients coming through the door each year.

"I’d like to see people come to Omega House earlier," he said, because it would allow caregivers to work with patients and families longer to help them all more fully prepare for their loved one’s death. That’s a family choice. Some spend a year here. This year we’re training for a record year. As baby boomers start aging, we may need to add rooms. This is an elderly area."

The Copper Country’s aging population is expected to drive the need for hospice services in the western Upper Peninsula.

Addressing each family's physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological and social needs, caregivers help control pain and symptoms so residents can live each day more comfortably.

Generous community support enables Omega House to care for people with limited insurance and finances. No one is turned away from Omega House due to lack of financial resources.

Covered by Medicare, Medicaid and most private insurances, fees are based on a sliding scale. Residents are charged a daily rate from $30 to $260 per day, depending on their insurance coverage and financial resources. Lutz said the average cost is $120.

"What makes up the difference is community donations," Lutz said. "Donations need to be strong."

Donors' names are etched in glass panes inside Omega House in Houghton.

Logging about 3,000 hours per year, volunteers help Omega House make ends meet.

"They provide us another level of care," Lutz said.

People can give of their time, or contribute in other ways.

"We get lots of donations," Lutz added, gesturing to a stack of cookies and other bakery he said was typical of the fare available at any given time. Biggby Coffee owner Landon Palmer and his wife, Abby Palmer, recently stopped by with samples of their delicious coffee, shortly before a couple showed up with their little dog in tow to visit a loved one.

Biggby Coffee owner Landon Palmer and his wife, Abby Palmer, recently delivered coffee to Omega House in Houghton.

"You see so much good," Lutz said. "The community organizations are working together."

And it’s not just the financial and food donations that make a difference in residents’ everyday lives. Tadych’s Econo Foods sends fresh flowers to each patient weekly.

"As a dedicated community partner, Econo Foods seized the opportunity to enhance the final days of Omega House residents," said Econo's Houghton Store Manager Scott Rubich.

Art from Calumet High School and Michigan Technological University students has graced the walls in the past and new exhibits are always welcome.

"We try to showcase things, to try to drive foot traffic," Lutz said, adding Omega House also relies on several fundraisers to raise money each year.

Upcoming fundraisers to include golf, music events

In addition to a yearly vacation raffle, the 16th annual Joe Evans Golf Classic will be June 9 at the Portage Lake Golf Course in Houghton. And for a $10 suggested donation, people can enjoy the 12th annual Omega House summer concert at 7 p.m. on July 24 at Saints Peter and Paul Lutheran Church in Houghton. Another musical fundraiser tentatively set for Sept. 29 will feature an out-of-town band at the Calumet Theatre.

Lutz noted these events are really part of efforts to raise awareness of what the hospice has to offer.

Facilitators, counselors help patient and family

Getting residents and their families through the dying process in the best way is another focus at the Omega House.

Trained facilitators broach often difficult discussions with patients and their families, including advance care planning. The planning process entails the patient choosing an advocate to speak for them when they no longer can, telling the staff and family how they want to be treated, including the specific medical care they want and don’t want -- all aimed at reducing the burden on the family to make hard choices at a difficult time.

The staff also provides bereavement counseling to meet the social, emotional and spiritual needs of patients and families and welcomes members of the clergy anytime.

"People don’t like to talk about death and dying, but they’ll listen," Lutz said.

The Rice Memorial Foundation recently awarded Omega House a $6,400 grant and the Portage Health Auxiliary just chipped in another $1,000 to help fund a community grief support program which provides for a ongoing series of grief workshops and free counseling for community members, including the youngest members of the family.

"These children are suffering out there," Lutz said, whether due to the loss of a loved one, or other family upset like divorce. "They get lost and they have no one to turn to."

Any remaining funds will be used to augment the library selection of the house.

Potential volunteers and donors can contact Omega House, located at 2211 Maureen Lane in Houghton, next door to The Bluffs Senior Community. For more information, call (906) 482-4438, visit www.omega-house.org, or email michael.lutz@omega-house.org.

* Guest writer Vanessa Dietz is a freelance journalist, formerly feature editor and reporter for The Daily Mining Gazette.

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