WELLFLEET — As president of the Friends of the Wellfleet Council on Aging, a home health aide with the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA), and a nursing home ombudsman for Elder Services of Cape Cod for 25 years, Sandra Wonders learned a lot about end-of-life dilemmas.
She never wanted to die in a nursing home, said Suzanne Grout Thomas, Wellfleet’s director of community services, a job that includes heading up the town’s senior center. She had seen up close how staffing shortages at long-term care facilities meant that the people staying in them often died alone.
Her death, at home, was made easier because of a chance meeting with Dawn Walsh, founder of the Lily House, a nonprofit community-based hospice organization on the Outer Cape. The meeting would change both of their lives.
Wonders asked Walsh to be her death doula, helping her through the social and emotional process of death. Less than a hundred years ago, Walsh explained, most people gave birth and died at home. But death, like birth, has become “medicalized,” often resulting in a loss of companionship, spirituality, touch, and personal freedom, Walsh said.
The two met weekly at Wonders’s home for the last three months of her life.
Wonders died at age 78 on March 11, 2021. She had arranged to donate her four-bedroom house at 40 Pocahontus Road to Walsh’s organization.
It will become the Lily House, where two people with a doctor’s prognosis of three months or less to live can receive 24-hour care.
Such places are called comfort care homes or social model hospice homes, and they follow a model espoused by the national Omega Home Network, a nonprofit that promotes community homes for dying people. According to Walsh, the Lily House in Wellfleet will be the only one on Cape Cod and only the second in Massachusetts.
The Lily House won’t be a medical facility, but rather a nonprofit staffed by paid caregivers, hospice nurses and trained volunteers who provide companionship. The patients can do as they please with their friends and families — visit, go for a walk, eat their favorite foods — without the restrictions imposed by hospitals and nursing homes. Depending on fund-raising, the Lily House should open by early spring, Walsh said. Fees will be charged on a sliding scale up to $250 a day.
Wonders first met Walsh in February 2020 at the Wellfleet Council on Aging, where Walsh led a “death café” to help people feel comfortable talking about dying.
“Sandy had been researching how to die for years, long before she got sick,” said Wonders’s niece, Michelle Ouellette, who with her mother, Kay, cared for Wonders in her last days. “Sandy wanted to be at home in familiar surroundings. It was about being comfortable and not in a sterile place where she did not know anyone.”
She decided to donate her home to the Lily House after interviewing Walsh and Lily House cofounder Paula Erickson, said Ouellette. “She felt an obligation to give to other people what she was able to experience,” Ouellette said. “She was the definition of the word ‘altruistic.’ ”
A native of Streator, Ill., Wonders went to William Jewell College and then earned a master’s degree in French literature in 1965 at Indiana University, according to her obituary. She taught French language and literature for five years at William Jewel College, while also pursuing a master’s in psychology.
She took a job with the state of Massachusetts, working with young people with developmental disabilities. She retired in 2000 as the director of family and children’s services for the Southeast region in what is now called the Dept. of Developmental Services.
In 1988, Wonders bought her Wellfleet house, which became her full-time residence once she retired. After spending a career working with children, she focused her retirement years on the elderly.
She was a Nauset Neighbors volunteer and an active member of the Wellfleet Congregational Church. Her niece described her as one of the strongest women she has ever known, a person who knew what she wanted and how to get it. “She was not aggressive, but definitely assertive — and kind,” Ouellette said.
Grout Thomas recalled her sense of humor. Once, Wonders got in an argument with another member of the Friends of the Council on Aging over how much money to keep in the bank. Wonders wanted the Friends to spend more. She told her opponent she would resign and start her own organization called “the Real Friends of the Council on Aging,” Grout Thomas said.
“She was the strongest, staunchest of advocates,” said Sarah Franey, director of family caregiver and options counseling at Elder Services of Cape Cod & the Islands. Once a week, Wonders would go to Seashore Point and other nursing homes and check in with every resident. She did that for 25 years.
“You did not mess with her,” Franey said. “Sandy got it done. Without question, she was a gentle force.”
Wonders, who never married or had children, discovered she had brain cancer and only months to live in December 2020. That’s when she asked Walsh to work with her. “We talked, held hands, meditated, shared,” Walsh said. “It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.”
Walsh has been working to change attitudes about death since moving to Provincetown in 2015. She advocates for green burials and home funerals and holds death cafés. She and cofounders Erickson and Hannah Ewart had a board of directors, nonprofit status, and a vision, but no house when they started the Lily House organization in 2019.
The thought of giving her house to this mission made Wonders’s eyes twinkle with joy until the end, Walsh said.
“She forgot she had cancer, she forgot to eat, and forgot she was dying,” Ouellette said. “But she never forgot she was donating her house to the Lily House.”
Editor’s note: The open house that had been scheduled for Dec. 11 at the Lily House’s new home has been postponed until spring. For more information: thelilyhouse.org.