Hospice Care News

COTTAGE GROVE — Their relationship involves a lot of yelling. But also a good deal of laughter, learning and understanding.

Sometimes, in fact, Kevin Houlahan wonders if their uproarious laughter and loud conversation annoy other restaurant and bar patrons at nearby tables.

That’s part of the deal when Houlahan takes his 94-year-old friend Oliver Weum out on the town every Thursday. Weum’s one-liners just come rapid-fire. And then there’s the fact that Weum is extremely hard of hearing, so Houlahan has to yell to be heard.

Houlahan met Weum in early December through Agrace HospiceCare in Fitchburg, where Houlahan began volunteering shortly after he moved to Madison 18 months ago. In the warmer months he is also a gardening volunteer at Agrace.

The type of volunteering Houlahan does with Weum is like a cross between Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. So, Houlahan drives to Weum’s senior living apartment in Cottage Grove and they make the rounds of Weum’s favorite restaurants and watering holes. The Green Lantern in McFarland is a typical starting point for breakfast or lunch.

Houlahan got involved with Agrace after the organization did a presentation at Houlahan’s wife’s workplace and she thought it might be a good fit.

Now Houlahan is one of Agrace’s “superstar volunteers” as the nonprofit’s Liz Kopling puts it. Kopling said the organization has about 1,000 volunteers but is looking to recruit more.

As the hours worked by volunteers increase, more resources can be dedicated to patient and family care, Kopling said. Last year, 16 percent of the hours worked at Agrace HospiceCare were donated by volunteers, said Amanda Husk, the organization’s volunteer services manager.

At one point, when Houlahan was telling a visitor how he began volunteering with Agrace, Weum advised him to, “Speak up. You ain’t in church.”

Later, Weum talked about how easy it is to go stir-crazy inside his apartment. “When you have four walls you get sick of looking at them.”

Weum just loves to get out, said his daughter Yvonne Redepenning, who takes him on outings every Monday and Wednesday. They go to breakfast and visit some taverns in Southeastern DaneCounty where Weum is well-known. “We make a day of it,” she said.

Thursday is Houlahan’s day, and Weum always looks forward to it. “He just loves Kevin,” Redepenning said. “He comes home totally satisfied.”

They make a good pair, Houlahan said. “I don’t know my way around here and you can hardly see,” he tells Weum. “But we make our way from place to place.”

When asked what he likes about his time with Houlahan, Weum, who is rarely serious over the course of an hour-long interview, leans in and chuckles, “Put it this way: I like that he can drive a car.”

Truth is, Houlahan, 58, is unusually upbeat with a dynamic personality. He moved to Madison from Iowa City when his wife took a job in nursing administration at UW Hospital. Retired from his job as a manufacturer’s rep, Houlahan said he just needed to get out. He reads a lot but doesn’t watch much TV. And he had a good experience with hospice years ago when his mother was dying. “I understand their mission,” he said.

Houlahan usually spends about four hours with Weum in a visit. He said he enjoys not only Weum’s wit but stories from a long life filled with all manner of jobs, including farming, selling real estate, working at Oscar Mayer and briefly at Rayovac. He even tried his hand at being a restaurateur, owning a restaurant and tavern in Jefferson for a year.

Weum, who grew up in a family with eight brothers and one sister, and with his late wife had three children, tells stories from his youth — 80 or 90 years ago, Houlahan marvels.

Houlahan noted that he spends three hours each morning reading the Wall Street Journal from front to back. “But I learn a lot more from him,” he said about Weum.

“We have a lot of fun. We cover a lot of topics,” Houlahan said. Then giving Weum a good-natured ribbing, he added, “You tell a lot of stories. I’m just trying to figure out which ones are true.”

Weum is in the hospice system for debility or “general decline,” Kopling said.

A patient must have a life-limiting condition and a prognosis of six months or less to live to be eligible to receive hospice services, Kopling said. Debility is a Medicare-approved hospice diagnosis used when a patient exhibits multiple chronic conditions rather than one specific terminal illness, such as cancer.

Hospice patients need to be certified by two doctors — their own physician and a hospice physician — to have a prognosis of six months or less, and that prognosis needs to be updated regularly, Husk said.

Some hospice patients see more than one volunteer and some volunteers see more than one patient. In this case, another Agrace volunteer spends time with Weum, and Houlahan volunteers with another Agrace patient once a week, too. He also signs up for on-call shifts and is always willing to handle last-minute requests from Agrace like taking patients to the doctor, Kopling said.

“I get a lot more than I give,” Houlahan said, noting that he can become emotional at times. “I’m just giving time. That’s all I give.”

So far Houlahan has worked with five or six people, all of whom are extremely appreciative, he said. “I usually wear them down,” he said in jest.

Houlahan appreciates the flexibility of his volunteer work with Agrace. “If you have an hour, they find something for you to do. If you have a whole day they’ll fill it,” he said.

“It’s really rewarding,” Houlahan said. “It sounds corny to say that you get more than you give. You have to experience it to appreciate it.”


MADISON, Wis. – Brian Tennant has joined Agrace, Wisconsin’s largest nonprofit community hospice, as its chief information officer.

In his new role, Tennant oversees Agrace’s information technology, health information management and electronic health records functions. He is responsible for planning and executing information technology vision, goals and initiatives to support Agrace’s mission, vision and long-term objectives. He will collaborate with other Agrace leaders to plan and implement information systems to support clinical and business operations and achieve more effective and cost-beneficial IT operations.

“Brian has the broad base of knowledge in health care necessary to succeed in this position,” said Agrace CEO Lynne Myers. “So much opportunity exists for Agrace to better integrate with our health care partners, and I am confident that Brian will help us get there.”

Prior to joining Agrace, Tennant was vice president of information services at Bethesda Lutheran Communities, where he developed and executed an information technology strategy. Tennant also spent five years with Berbee (now CDW) in a variety of management roles. He earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Founded in 1978, Agrace is a nonprofit, community-based hospice and palliative care agency dedicated to providing exceptional care and support to patients and families facing the challenges of serious illness. With offices in Madison and Janesville, Agrace serves more than 600 patients every day in Dane, Rock, Walworth, Green and Jefferson Counties.



As reported by Shelly Birkelo in the Janesville Gazette

JANESVILLE — The dilemma for hospice volunteers such as Bob Stevens is knowing how much to tell clients diagnosed with life-limiting conditions.

“I think you have to be able to communicate with these people to the best of your knowledge. You can’t lie, and they’ll ask you a lot of questions,” Stevens said.

He encouraged volunteers and others to seek answers at a free educational program Tuesday, Feb. 12, at Agrace HospiceCare, 3001 W. Memorial Drive, Janesville. It’s open to the public and anyone is welcome, including caregivers, family members, health care professionals, parish nurses and those who visit the homebound, said Community Relations Manager Lisa Brown of the Agrace Rock County office.

“Spouses can come, as well,” she said, “because sometimes they’re looking for tools to be able to start conversations, as well.”

Concise communication can reduce stress, prevent misunderstandings and put patients at ease, said Stevens, who volunteers with Agrace HospiceCare.

“It makes me and the patient feel comfortable talking,” he said.

Brown said the program objectives include

— Greater understanding of the dynamics of conversation in a health care setting.

— Awareness of why health conversations are more complex.

— Definition of health care communication goals that allows caregivers to be stronger advocates and for patients to have greater voices.

— Tools to start and manage these conversations.

“When we have a more active role in our health care conversations, we feel empowered and find greater satisfaction in our health care experience,” Brown said.

The program will provide tips to paint a more precise picture for health care professionals. Telling a doctor that a loved one seems more forgetful is vague. Telling the doctor you’ve noticed three times in a week that your mother’s door was left unlocked is providing specifics.

“It’s learning how to start documenting things in ways that build a more true picture,” Brown said.

Brown said those attending the program can share personal experiences about dealing with frustrating situations and barriers. “To know you’re not alone in this caregiving issue is very powerful,” she said.

Brown hopes attendees leave the program knowing they should have health care conversations before an emergency. “Being able to talk about them freely now will make people more comfortable when that crisis happens because that’s when we’re not always thinking clearly and responding well,” she said.