Ask Harold Yannerelly what he thinks of the hospice care he receives at Our Lady of Peace Home in St. Paul and he'll tell you he's at a loss for words. Then the 91-year-old retired health inspector will rave about the place, nonstop.
Not only is the care exceptional, said Yannerelly, who's in the last stages of prostate cancer. It doesn't cost a dime.
The nursing home, founded by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, opened on Dec. 7, 1941, as Our Lady of Good Counsel, offering free care to cancer patients in the last stages of the disease. The Franciscan Health Community took over operations about five years ago and renamed it Our Lady of Peace.
This August, its board voted to open the home and its 21 beds to all hospice patients, regardless of their illness. The services are still free, which appears to be a one-of-a-kind offer in Minnesota.
A 2011 MetLife survey of nursing homes nationwide found the average daily cost for a private room in Minnesota to be $205, and $184 for a shared room.
Mike Randall, director of development for Our Lady of Peace, said its budget comes from an endowment left by the founding nuns' order and from donations.
"Our bread and butter is estate gifts," Randall said. "No one knows why, because the sisters weren't out promoting it."
Some nursing homes will continue care for hospice patients at no charge if they've been paying to live in their facilities. But a reporter could find no other nursing home in Minnesota offering free care from the date of admission.
Kathryn Snyder, whose father died there on Sept. 5, said her brother was dubious when she told him the nursing home wouldn't cost anything and insisted that she verify it. "So I called them and they said, 'No, really, it's free. Have him call us,' " she said.
Snyder said the care her father received was extraordinary.
"The staff genuinely welcomed us, like we were coming into their private home," she said. "We will be a part of their family for a long time and go to fundraisers that they have, and we'll spread the word to many people about it, too."
Paula Winsor said she was astounded at the level of care that her sister, Connie Class, received at the home for two weeks last year as she was dying from colon cancer. She said her sister could not have paid for the services.
Winsor said she mentioned to the staff that she and Connie liked root beer floats, and within minutes, they had them in hand. They gave her sister bubble baths and made up her bed with a homemade quilt.
"It's a place you really couldn't explain unless you're there," Winsor said. "I said, 'Connie, when you came here, the angels just surrounded you.' "
Our Lady of Peace has become one of the family's top charities, Winsor said.
The average stay at Our Lady of Peace is about three weeks, but some residents have lived there longer than a year.
Joe Stanislav, president and CEO of the home, said shorter stays are far more common, in part because people often delay hospice care longer than they should.
"It's very fluid, quite honestly. We can have five admissions and five deaths in one day," Stanislav said. "Near the end of life, things can change very quickly for them."
'Something given to you'
Karen Henningsen said her mother, Irene Schroepfer, lived at home as long as she could, but spent her final week at Our Lady of Peace. That made a huge difference for the family, she said, because it lifted the burden of caregiving and allowed them to reconnect as a family.
At 92, Schroepfer could no longer bathe or move about safely, Henningsen said. She said her family members didn't know how to help her, but the staff at the nursing home knew all of the ways to keep her comfortable until she died in January of stomach cancer.
Jack Yannerelly, 82, said Harold, his brother, was in hospice care in Waterville, Minn., but was unhappy there and loaded up on medications. He tried another nursing home in Inver Grove Heights with similar results. In May, a bed opened at Our Lady of Peace.
"That was the luckiest thing we ever had," Jack Yannerelly said.
Our Lady of Peace stopped giving Harold the drugs that seemed to be agitating him, and he came out of his funk.
"At the time, I wouldn't have given him another week," Jack Yannerelly said.
Harold Yannerelly said words can't describe the care he gets at Our Lady of Peace.
"It's like I'm having a kind of epiphany," he said. "I wake up in the morning, most mornings, and there's a huge, gentle person there who wants to start my day with the best pleasantries there is. Big John, he's the greatest guy in the world; he's a great nurse. Honestly, it moves me to the point that I look forward to everything that happens to me throughout the day."
"I know where I am in my life. I know where I am going, and everyone here is going to help me there," he continued. "This is not something that you pay for; this is something that is given to you."