SANTA ROSA --St. Joseph Health-operated Memorial Hospice will consolidate its current locations at three different houses near the corner of Mendocino Avenue and Benton Street into 12,000 square feet at 139 College Ave., where it will bring all staff under one roof to accommodate an increase in its services that mirrors a nationwide trend.

Judy Ryder, director of hospice services  in Sonoma County for the health system, said the move will allow for 50 to 60 people to "comfortably gather" for volunteer trainings, staff meetings, grief support programs, public education classes and other services, which have seen higher demand. Memorial Hospice sees between 160 and 170 patients a day, and between 50 to 200 grief clients -- family members, friends, etc., grieving from the loss of a loved one -- per week, depending on the size of the group.

"This new site will enable all of  our  81 Memorial Hospice employees to be housed under one roof, and will provide enlarged conference room space and ample parking for visitors who come for grief counseling, volunteer training, community education and more," said Ms. Ryder, who also oversees Hospice of Petaluma and North County Hospice in Healdsburg.

The new building will have 61 parking spaces . It will also be far more secure for a new electronic health records system that Memorial Hospice  is soon switching to, Ms. Ryder said. Memorial Hospice will move into the new location in September, upon completion of renovations.

St. Joseph Health is not alone in seeing an increase hospice services --  almost 42 percent of all deaths in the U.S. took place under hospice care in 2010, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. The organization attributed the increase to a growing senior population across the country who are now more familiar with and accepting of hospice care, a comparatively new segment of the health care landscape that became a Medicare benefit in 1982. 

Across the North Bay, the trend is certainly occurring, said Sandra Lew, executive director of Hospice By The Bay, which provides care in Marin, Sonoma, San Francisco and San Mateo counties.  She said her organization has seen tremendous growth in its services -- 10 years ago, it served 75 to 80 patients per day; now, it's up to as much as 400 in a day. About 200 of those patients are in Marin, which has the highest per capita rate of adults over 65  in all of California.

"It really is growing and we project that number is going to grow as the baby boomers age," Ms. Lew said, adding that outreach and education finally seem to be paying off. "Hospice is still relatively new in this country, but I think enough people know of it and are availing themselves to it. There is certainly movement and acceptance in the medical field."

Ms. Ryder of St. Joseph Health agreed that hospice care is gaining more mainstream acceptance and that programs are growing nationally.

"It's absolutely true that all hospice programs are growing," Ms. Ryder said. "The awareness of what the service is is certainly part of the common health care language. There's a good acceptance."

In 2010, an estimated 1.58 million patients received hospice services, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Medicare is the primary source of funding for hospice, though most private insurance recognizes it as well.

Both Ms. Lew and Ms. Ryder said the increase is usage is a sign that all parties -- physicians, hospitals, patients, insurance, family members and others on -- recognize that it's more about respecting the wishes of the patient.

What's known as POLST -- physicians orders for life sustaining treatment -- gives patients broad authority to direct what happens in the event of a chronic illness. Ms. Lew said increasingly hospice is a part of those conversations between patient and doctor. 

"By having these conversations, the patient has an order to say, 'This is what I want to have done,'" she said. "The trend is that patients are given options."

Ms. Ryder said, "It's progress, because it's going to happen and there's wa's to honor people's wishes at the end of life."

Hospice By The Bay and St. Joseph Health are both nonprofits.