Susan Steen is the new executive director of the Chilliwack Hospice Society

Committed to end-of-life care

Susan Steen steps into her new role as Executive Director of the Chilliwack Hospice Society.

Sam Bates / Black Press

Talk to Susan Steen, and you’ll quickly realize that she is a woman of action.

As she steps into her new role as Executive Director of the Chilliwack Hospice Society, filling the shoes of Liz Lynch, she sat down with The Progress to talk about the role of hospice in the community.

She joins the organization with six years of experience as the ED for the Central Okanagan Hospice Society. Despite uprooting and moving across the province, Steen says that this industry – and the people within it – feels like home.

That inherent ambience of warmth and comfort is what hospice is all about.

Palliative care volunteers provide holistic care to meet the physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs of dying people and their families. They support terminally ill people with care, respect and love until their last moments, and  guide family and friends through the grieving process with empathy.

“When you watch the families come in, you see them take that breath and go, ‘Okay, we can deal with this,’” Steen expressed. Unlike a hospital, there aren’t bells ringing or people darting from room to room.

“Nothing against hospitals; they’re there to cure,” she said. “But when cure isn’t available, or when cure isn’t an option, then you hope that the rest is as peaceful and meaningful as possible,” Steen explained.

The core values within hospice organizations are generally consistent, Steen recognizes. What differs are the specific programs, services and community engagement strategies, for which Steen is impressed by what she sees here in Chilliwack.

“The bereavement program here is really growing, and amazingly so,” she said. That growth is partly a result of the notable range of services provided, which cater to unique circumstances including support groups for grieving children or parents, as well as one-on-one support and relaxation sessions. Steen also partly credits a growing societal willingness to openly talk about grief with others.

Chilliwack’s hospice volunteers and staff are a “wonderful” team that Steen is eager to get to know and be a part of. More than 160 volunteers contribute to the organization in one manner or another.

Those who work with clients and patients receive extensive training to provide the utmost care to people in their last days, and families as they go through what is often the most trying event in their lives.

Many volunteers work in the Thrifty Boutique thrift shop, which Steen is already a big fan of as she made initial visits this week to meet the team and better understand the store’s significant contributions toward the organization.

One of her most essential responsibilities is that of continuing to leverage and manage community support.

“As a non-profit, we have finite amount of resources. We depend incredibly on businesses and individuals for donations, and we are grateful for this community who  are certainly very generous.”

She’ll be working with the board to determine how best to use those resources to ensure the society remains viable and vibrant into the future.

“I think we need to talk about dying more… which sounds a little morbid – I get,” Steen said. Because if we don’t talk about it, it has a way of becoming the elephant in the room. Part of their mandate as hospice is to encourage advance care planning, both to allow an individual to be in control of those last decisions, and to lessen the burden on the family to make complex choices during an already stressful time.

The federal and provincial governments have critical roles in the important conversation.

According to a report by the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, 70 per cent of Canadian deaths occur in a hospital. The report also indicates that only 16 to 30 per cent of dying people in Canada have access to hospice palliative care services.

From what Steen has gathered, “By 2020, there’s going to be almost double the number of [hospice] beds in B.C.,” she said. That increase would likely include some additional brick and mortar hospice houses across the province, but more imminently there would be an increased allocation of hospital and long-term care facility beds to palliative care, where hospice volunteers bring their compassionate services to the individual, where they are.

As quality palliative hospice care like that in Chilliwack becomes more accessible, it comes at a complicated time. The assisted dying Bill C-14, currently being debated in parliament, will permanently alter the landscape in which terminally ill Canadians make their decisions.

“The bottom line is that we’re here to provide that comfort to the last breath,” Steen said. The Chilliwack Hospice Society accepts death as a part of life, and they do all they can to allow people to live well until the very end.

As she takes the reins of the organization, building relationships with all who are a part of it, Susan Steen is learning and planting seeds every day to achieve her goal.

“This organization will – in five years – have created a community where no one has to die alone, and no one has to grieve alone.”