Ohio hospice patients draw comfort watching birds

CINCINNATI (AP) — Dying is as unique an experience as it is an inevitable one. Every path to the end is as individual as the person walking it.

Still, there are common elements. Frequently, when a person knows he or she is dying, the world can begin to feel very small, the walls can begin to close in.

Hospice of Cincinnati knows this and tries to combat it. The organization encourages patients at its in-care facility in Blue Ash to remain engaged through arts and music and chaplain visits. End-of-life conversations are encouraged. Instructions are provided.

But one of the most effective ways to keep people engaged is the simplest: a bird feeder hangs in front of every patient’s window.

The bird feeders are there today because one person, Brett Gilmore of Wild Birds Unlimited, decided this small corner of the world and the people who inhabit it for just a short period at their end of their lives deserve to hear bird songs every morning.

The feeders bring nature and life and music. The birds swoop in, eat and chirp. Sometimes they are messy eaters, so chipmunks and squirrels visit as well. Sometimes deer join the act. Each window provides an ongoing show because the hospice location in Blue Ash is something of a bird haven. The site has thick trees, a bubbling pond and a small wetland.

Laura Marquis, 83, has been in room 400 for about 13 weeks. She says her lungs are bad, her kidneys are awful and she has cancer “everywhere.” But her eyes are bright, and on a Wednesday a few weeks ago she kept visitors waiting nearly 30 minutes while she did her makeup and hair.

“Oh, I loved the bird feeders on the first day I got here,” Marquis said. “I noticed it right away. Wow, wow. It’s nature, it’s beautiful.”

Marquis said the birds make her feel peaceful. She said the show outside her window is usually better than what is on TV.

Colleen Rosario is a nurse manager at the 35-bed facility. She knows the nature show is important for patients and their families at a time when stress levels can be high.

“You will see the families sit and watch, it brings the “outside” in,” Rosario said. “It changes the room. It decreases stress, lets people think about other things.”

The bird feeders first came to Blue Ash as a Boy Scout’s Eagle Service Project sometime in the early ’80s, according to hospice staffers, although nobody can remember exactly when or who the Scout was.

But over 30 years, the old wooden bird feeders began to fall apart after too many summers and winters and birds. That’s when Gilmore got involved.

Wild Birds Unlimited sells bird seed and feeders and caters to bird enthusiasts.

Gilmore had been an environmental educator with the Cincinnati Nature Center. He had also been a bird person ever since his grandmother bought him a bird feeder when he was 25 years old. “I loved it the first day, I was mesmerized,” said Gilmore, 41.

In 2006, he bought a Wild Birds Unlimited on Montgomery Road. As a longtime supporter of the hospice, he decided he wanted to get the facility some better feeders. So whenever a customer would buy a new feeder, he would check out the old one. If it was in good enough shape, he would ask if he could take it, refurbish it and give it to hospice. He never got a no.

Now Gilmore also donates a two-pound bag of bird feed to every new patient so they can keep their feeders filled. He also has a contract with hospice to provide feed every Wednesday.

“But that is always gone by Saturday, so the families of the patients keep them filled,” Gilmore said. “They run out as soon as they are empty.”

This week Gilmore and his crew, particularly Andrew Wargetz, who has worked hard to locate used feeders, took down all the old feeders, scrubbed them clean and replaced the ones that were too far gone.

They also added some birdhouses that will attract even more birds. “There is really good species diversity here. It’s a great habitat,” Gilmore said. Then he started naming some birds that were watching his crew work.

By midafternoon that Wednesday a few weeks back, patients were beginning to look out their windows, checking to see when they were getting their feeders back. They wanted their nature show to continue.

“It’s really special for the patient and their families,” Gilmore said. “It brings God right to them.”

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