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Casa de la Luz means “house of light”, and this local hospice has been bringing light into the homes of Oro Valley families for over 25 years.
Hospices are an unusual type of business. No one wants to think about them until they need one – and then they suddenly become the most important thing in the world.
“When our Mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, our world flipped upside down,” says one local man. “Mom’s comfort was the only thing that mattered to us. Casa de la Luz showed us that hospice care wasn’t about dying. It was about allowing Mom to enjoy every remaining day of her life to the fullest.”
In the last 30 years, the population of Tucson has been relatively stable, while the population of Oro Valley has skyrocketed — from 10,000 residents in 1990, to almost 50,000 in 2020.
Casa de la Luz has been growing along with the community during this period of intense growth, and is the largest hospice provider in N. Tucson. With over 150 employees, they are one of the largest employers in the Valley, and an active member of the Chamber of Commerce. This local business supports the annual Alzheimer’s Walk and similar events such as the Cancer Walk.
Casa cares for anywhere from 250 to 300 patients at any given time. Considering that there are only 20,000 households throughout the Valley, this means that Casa has caregivers working in every single neighborhood in the community.
“An important part of our mission is to educate the community about what hospice is, because it’s not something that everyone understands,” explains Executive Director Tobias Emms.
Casa de la Luz has full-time Nurse Educators whose responsibility is to work with everyone from families to doctors to first responders about what hospice can offer. “We encourage them to learn more about hospice and how to refer people those that might benefit from this care – whether it’s with us, or another provider in the area,” says Emms.
It is never easy for a doctor to give a terminal diagnosis, but there is a limit to what else they can do for the patient. People at the end of life need hands-on emotional, psychological and spiritual support – the type that doctors and hospitals are not set up to provide. Doctors appreciate that they can request that Casa send a Nurse Educator to come and explain to their patients what hospice can offer.
Mr. Emms gives the example of how the Nurse Educators also work with groups like firefighters: “We might have first responders who receive calls three nights in a row from a person who continues to fall in their house. The first-responders can help explain the advantages of hospice care to them and their families.”
There are several tiers to hospice care, including chaplains, doctors, social workers, nurses, therapists and counselors. Some of the care goes well beyond what many might imagine. For example, Casa de la Luz has bereavement counselors that continue to work with the grieving family over a year after their loved one has passed.
Casa also has the special distinction of being the only hospice in Tucson with a musical therapist certified by the American Music Therapy Association.
“The power of music is extraordinary,” remarks Emms. “Sometimes patients might be non-communicative, and then after he plays music, the person will magically come out. The patients report being moved by music they knew as a child. One family member said that she had not heard her mother sing in over 10 years, and it brought tears to her eyes.”
The heart of Casa de la Luz’ program is the nurses who make home visits to the patients. These are arguably some of the most amazing people in Oro Valley.
“The strength of our nurses is second to none,” exclaims Emms, with obvious admiration. “They are out there caring for people every single day. They might have 15-20 patients on their caseload, and they could lose all of those patients in 6 months. Being able to cope with that loss is immensely powerful. That’s why these caregivers always seem to have a personal story.”
It turns out that for the staff of Casa, hospice care is a calling – not something that anyone knows in advance will become their life’s work.
“Every year we ask the staff to raise their hands if they knew they wanted to be in hospice care at the beginning of their careers,” says Emms. “No one raises their hand. While all of our staff were always drawn to health care, there is no set training for hospice care as a specialization. People often gravitate toward the field from other types of health care work because of personal experiences in their lives. They find it to be deeply meaningful work, and we get uniquely caring people on our staff.”
It’s no secret that Oro Valley’s prime weather is a draw for many retirees. Over 35% of our residents are over 65, and the Valley’s retiree population swells each winter with the arrival of our snowbird population.
“Many of our retirement-age residents have local families that can support them,” says Emms. “But for retirees with family living elsewhere – for example, maybe they have children in the Midwest — hospice can provide that crucial level of social interaction that is missing from a patient’s home.”
Not everyone Casa serves is a senior. “Hospice is not limited to older people,” Emms explains. “A tragic, end-of-life diagnosis can occur at any age. We have patients who may be 20-year-old mothers of two. We provide hospice to people of all ages.”
Hospice care is a type of health care that focuses on the palliation of a terminally ill patient’s pain and symptoms and attending to their emotional and spiritual needs at the end of life. Hospice care prioritizes comfort and quality of life by reducing pain and suffering.
Casa de la Luz’ 150 employees work in a tiered-care model that involves many different roles.
Casa is the only hospice in the Valley with a full-time medical director, who provides M.D.-level support, such as reviewing patient charts and providing prescriptions. The Clinical Director, Karen Gutierrez, oversees all of the clinical nurses that make home visits.
Each patient has multiple levels of support in their care team. Their case manager coordinates their individual-specific team, which ranges from the medical and nurse directors at the top, to their nurse-caregivers, to social workers, therapists and other care professionals. Patients have a contact list for all members of their care team. They can also contact their personal nurse at any time.
All of the layers of caregivers are able to coordinate their efforts through software that allows the various Casa team members to share the chart for each patient. (All of the employees carry tablets for this purpose.) The nurses consult the patient chart before home visits, and then log information from each visit afterward. At any given time, every member of the care team can see what’s going on with the patient down to their most recent check-in.
The idea of hospice is not something we want to think about, but if we come to need it, a service like Casa de la Luz can be a godsend.
“Hospice is not about dying,” says Emms. “It’s about the fullness of life – not just for the patient, but also for the family. Casa de la Luz helps patients live their best lives out in the comfort of their own homes. We have a slogan around here: ‘We know how much every day counts.’”
Call (520) 544-9890 or visit Casa de la Luz.
By Tom Ekman, J.D., M.Ed.