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Dollhouse project helps hospice patient leave legacy

At the end of your life, what do you have but the stories from it? That's what Laurie Muriello, of Oak Park, has reminded her mother, Jo DeYoung, as they've worked to furnish and decorate a three-story dollhouse while DeYoung has received hospice care for the past several months.

Lifetime of memories: Dollhouse project helps hospice patient leave legacy

As they've filled it with miniature furnishings, they've also tucked within each room emblems of DeYoung's stories and nods to her Swedish heritage.

"This is your story within the walls of this house," Muriello told DeYoung on Nov. 22.

Although she'd always wanted a dollhouse as a child, DeYoung, who turned 87 on Nov. 12, said she never asked her parents for one because dollhouses were costly. She didn't think about it again until she reached her 80s, when her daughters asked what she'd like for her birthday.

They gave DeYoung her very first dollhouse, which she wanted to turn into a Swedish cottage, to reflect her heritage and culture.

"Even though the house itself wasn't Swedish to begin with ..." Muriello said.

"We made it Swedish," DeYoung interjected with a smile.

DeYoung, whose grandparents emigrated from Sweden, distanced herself from her Swedish roots when she married her husband, Norm, who was Dutch. Muriello, DeYoung's middle daughter whom she lives with, said the dollhouse has provided a way for her mom to revisit her heritage.

 

Lifetime of memories: Dollhouse project helps hospice patient leave legacy

Kate Gilbert, an art therapist with Chicago-area Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, started working with DeYoung in February and has visited weekly or twice weekly since to assist with dollhouse work.

"It just took her back to those years of being a child," Gilbert said. "We really came in at the right point to turn it into a legacy piece."

A legacy project provides a memento for those a patient leaves behind, a keepsake that often involves photos, music or recipes, Gilbert said. A dollhouse was a first.

"We have never done something like this before," Gilbert said.

As the year progressed, DeYoung, Muriello and Gilbert chose paint colors and transformed rooms, outfitting them with furniture, decor and accessories. But the dollhouse — as intricate as a real home, and with working lights to boot — holds a deeper meaning, intended to give future generations insight into DeYoung's life through photos, stories and mementos.

The dollhouse will be left to DeYoung's 1- and 3-year-old great-granddaughters. Working on the dollhouse has been bittersweet for DeYoung, who enjoys the process, but hates to think of being unable to share in the enjoyment of the dollhouse with her great-granddaughters.

"It didn't come without emotions for mom," Muriello acknowledged.

Throughout the dollhouse, clues to DeYoung's life, personality and family history can be found, and a guide book of sorts will be given with the dollhouse. As the three spent months furnishing the dollhouse, Gilbert and Muriello continued to devise ways to incorporate DeYoung's memories and mementos within its walls.

On the front of the house, it's identified as "Carlsson Stuga" — a nod to DeYoung's maiden name and the Swedish word for "cottage." Photos of DeYoung as a little girl were shrunk down and framed to hang on walls of rooms, or glued to the backs of furniture or inside drawers.

Pieces from DeYoung's prized jewelry collection were chosen for her great-granddaughters and hidden in drawers within the dollhouse's dressers; the girls will be directed to discover the jewelry on significant birthdays.

From an old wallet of DeYoung's grandfather, items like a 1903 fair ticket found inside were framed; the wallet's clasp has become the dollhouse's exterior doorknocker. A portion of a tea towel loomed by DeYoung's aunt was turned into a tiny pillow. Sheet music of DeYoung's favorite hymn, "How Great Thou Art," hangs on one wall.

Behind the bathtub, DeYoung's signature can be found, and "I love you" in her handwriting is hidden elsewhere. DeYoung's famous Swedish pancake recipe will be concealed behind the stove. A small collie dog figurine is tucked behind the stairs in honor of DeYoung's beloved Collie, Jack.

"There's little things hidden that you can't really see unless you hunt, and that's what we want the girls to do eventually," Muriello said.

As they worked on the dollhouse, DeYoung has shared countless stories and memories with Muriello and Gilbert, some not even Muriello and her two sisters had heard. This led to Muriello recording DeYoung relaying a handful of stories and saving them to a flash drive.

In a nod to DeYoung's performing history — she danced and sang in a big band years ago, and later took part in theater group Village Players with her husband — the flash drive was tucked under the stage on the third floor. Miniature photos of DeYoung during certain performances are pasted inside dresser drawers.

"Everything has a little bit of history of who mom was," Muriello said.

DeYoung said she hopes her great-granddaughters enjoy it as much as she has. Muriello said DeYoung sometimes wonders if "all this fuss" about her is warranted, but Muriello and Gilbert have assured her it's important to share her story and her heritage with her descendants.

"I don't know many people who get to experience what my mom got to experience," Muriello said. "These little girls still have a little Swedish in them, and let's let them know what that meant to [her]."

Gilbert mentioned that the amount of time she's had to work with DeYoung has been unique, as many patients begin receiving hospice care at the tail end of their lives. And DeYoung's cognitive function has remained stable throughout.

"Most of our patients, we certainly don't have that much time left," Gilbert said. "She's been the driving force."

Gilbert said she's not only noticed the dollhouse work lift DeYoung's spirits, but has observed DeYoung experience less pain, better sleep and fewer respiratory problems on the days they dedicate to dollhouse work. They've said their good-byes to DeYoung four times since January, and each time she's continued on.

"I do believe she willed herself through a couple of those episodes, to see it to completion," Muriello said.

DeYoung, a creative personality who designed her own wedding dress, wasn't using that side of herself anymore, and engaging in the dollhouse project helped her get back in touch with that, Gilbert said.

"This dollhouse brought that back to her as well," Gilbert said.

And on a deeper level, as DeYoung has recounted memories both happy and sad and shared stories from her youth, "it has brought her a tremendous amount of peace," Gilbert said.

"It was actually bringing to the surface some sort of bigger issues Jo had with facing the end of life in general," Gilbert said. "Doing it through the dollhouse opened the doors for a lot of those conversations to happen."

For Muriello, it's been a way to spend quality time with her mom doing something that has brought DeYoung much joy in her final months.

As they decorate the house for the Christmas season, with lighted trees, Santa pillows and a nativity scene, Muriello joked that like any house, work on the dollhouse may never be finished. She laughed as she mentioned her husband has chided her about the Etsy bill, as Muriello continues to order dollhouse decor.

"But I think we made a dream come true," Muriello said, adding that DeYoung repeatedly tells her, "I will never know how to thank you for this."

Each night, once her mom is in bed, Muriello asks DeYoung which room of the dollhouse, sitting atop her dresser, she'd like her to light.

"It just amazes me. I look at it every morning when I wake up, and every night when I go to bed. It's so beautiful when it's lit," DeYoung said, gazing at the dollhouse.

Caitlin Mullen is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.

This article orginally appeared here.