When Beverly and Deacon Gary Clark were taking courses on death and dying at St. Bernard’s Institute 12 years ago, they learned that there was a need for a home for the dying in the southeast area of Monroe County.
That’s how the parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Mendon decided to start a hospice home, so they could give comfort and care to the dying and their families.
“That’s why we never gave up,” Beverly Clark said. “Obviously, one obstacle was money. Back 10 to 12 years ago, this was a new concept.”
Deacon Clark’s death soon after served to kick start the founding of a hospice home, Beverly Clark said. Donations in his memory became seed money for St. Catherine of Siena’s 1996 purchase of a house at 3880 Rush-Mendon Road in Mendon. The house had been built in 1842 as a Presbyterian parsonage, then was used to treat cholera patients and as a private residence before falling into disrepair. After volunteers restored each room and decorated it with cheery quilts, Beverly Clark enlisted the help of volunteers to fill the 230 time slots a month needed to operate the home and care for residents.
“I called in every friend I have,” said Clark, now the home’s executive director.
The two-bed home — called Benincasa — recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and the completion of a major remodeling project. During the past decade, 170 people have been cared for and died at Benincasa. The home took its name from St. Catherine of Siena’s surname, which means “good home,” Clark said.
“When we talk to a family, we tell them we do the caregiving, so you can remain a family,” she said.
Benincasa strives for a homelike atmosphere, Clark said. There are no set visiting hours. Residents can eat whatever they want, whenever they want, including ice cream at 2 or 3 a.m.
The home includes an extra bedroom for family members to use, a play area for kids, a chapel, a community lending library with books on grief, death and dying, and a room set aside for grief counselors.
The home is a ministry of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and Mendon Presbyterian Church, but residents have hailed from every major religion, volunteers said, noting that they’ve helped residents celebrate Jewish and Muslim holidays.
Linda Borden of Fairport, a nurse who often volunteers at Benincasa, said hospitals have been trained to save patients, no matter what the circumstances. In the past decade, hospice care has become more widely accepted in the medical community, she said. Now more health-care workers are beginning to focus on easing patient suffering, she noted.
“I think hospice homes are helping it to get better,” she said.
Nurse Irene Buonanno of Fairport, who previously was a psychological-ward nurse at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, said she loves working at Benincasa. She volunteers 20 hours per week and also is on call. The home also has a Brighton doctor, Richard G. Gagnier, who is on call whenever he is needed.
Although volunteering as a nurse at Benincasa is hands-on hard work that involves complex medical needs for dying patients, Buonanno said she loves it.
“It’s wonderful,” Buonanno said. “It’s the best kind of nursing. There are only two people, so you can get very personal care, and everyone who is here wants to be here.”
Since residents choose hospice care, they appreciate the care and pain management they receive, Buonanno said. Going through care three years ago with her own father, Buonanno said despite her nursing background she found being an at-home caregiver difficult. The experience at a hospice home is different, she said.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction in making people comfortable,” Buonanno said. “This is not a depressing place.”
Barbara Senise of Irondequoit said when her husband, Phillip P. Senise Jr., was dying from a malignant brain tumor, the folks at Benincasa bent over backwards to turn his final residence into a home.
“The people who run these (homes) are very special,” said Senise, a registered nurse. “Not only do they take care of the patients, they take care of the whole family. They allow you to be just the family, as opposed to being caretakers.”
Senise said while her husband was at Benincasa, volunteers threw her a surprise birthday party and allowed her son and daughter-in-law to get married at the house so her husband could attend both events. When her husband was ready to die, volunteers allowed it to happen, and kept him comfortable and at ease, Senise said.
Although she has begun to volunteer with a Lifetime Care bereavement group, Senise said she does not volunteer at Benincasa.
“Because of this hospice, I’m volunteering, but from an emotional standpoint, I couldn’t volunteer here,” she said. “It hurts too much.”
She said she was glad to learn in her support group that she was going through a normal grieving process.
“You think that you are losing your mind, but it’s nice to know that what you are feeling isn’t unusual,” Senise said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on Benincasa or to volunteer, call 585/624-8070 or visit http://benincasainc.org.