Area seniors who are preparing to embark on a Hospice end-of-life journey can now rest in peace knowing that their pets will be left in capable hands.
In recent months, Hospice Chautauqua County has been providing area seniors with companionship and support for their pets through a Pet Peace of Mind program and a Pet Companionship program. The programs are made possible thanks to the combined efforts and generosity of Banfield Charitable Trust, local volunteers and Hospice employees.
According to Roberta Thompson, Pet Companionship coordinator who has a master's degree in social work with post-graduate work involving animals and human health through the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, Hospice contacted her about a year ago to start a program that involved pets.
Lynne Wahlstrom and her dwarf rabbit are shown. Both she and her mother, Cheryl, volunteer in the Pet Companionship program.
"Throughout the master's program I focused on animal assisted therapy," said Thompson. "Hospice asked me how I envisioned the program, and I saw it as having two components - the first being that if clients are in their own home, in a nursing home or in a hospital and they want a visit from a pet, we would have a pool of volunteers to make that happen. The other component of the program involves helping clients keep their pets in their home. So, if they need help with things such as taking their pet to the vet, getting the pet groomed, assistance cleaning or feeding and a number of other things, we have services to meet those needs."
In May, Hospice received a $5,000 grant from Banfield Charitable Trust, a pet advocacy organization, to start the Pet Peace of Mind program, which is a national program designed to help nonprofit Hospices keep patients and their pets together during the end-of-life journey. That grant money is being utilized locally to help keep vulnerable seniors together with their pets for as long as possible. For more information on the organization visit banfieldcharitabletrust.org.
When their masters pass, new homes are found for the animals through a placement program.
"A huge issue for a lot of clients is what is going to happen to their pet when they pass," said Thompson. "So, they need help with placing their pet, and we work with organizations such as the Chautauqua County Humane Society, Lakeshore Humane Society, Westfield Canine Rescue and Ten Lives Club to find homes for these animals."
For those seeking pet companionship, the program currently includes dogs, cats and a rabbit. Dogs are the primary animal available for visits because they must be certified by the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test.
"The certification process ensures that the dogs have experience in unusual situations that they might run into in a nursing home, hospital or private residence," said Thompson. "Among many other things, the dog learns that if the owner walks away that the dog is OK with a stranger, or that if someone approaches with a walker or wheelchair, the dog will remain calm."
According to Thompson, several goals of animal-assisted therapy include relaxation, socialization and companionship.
"We try to get the client engaged in petting the animal, which is relaxing for both the client and the animal," said Thompson. "Sometimes clients don't really want to communicate with people, so the animals are also good for socialization and conversation. And, if there isn't a lot of family or support, we can come in with an animal to offer companionship."
Connee Brown and her Canine Good Citizen certified boxer mix, Trixie, visit Hospice clients throughout the county. They have visited clients in private homes, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. They have visited as many as three clients in one day, which according to Thompson, is a lot. This type of work can be stressful for a dog, so visits are kept relatively short.
Trixie was adopted by Brown and her husband from the Chautauqua County Humane Society. Trixie then attended dog-obedience training with Andrea DiMaio at Dog Speak, the Dog Place and successfully passed the AKC Canine Good Citizen test so she could become a volunteer in the Hospice program.
"I enjoy volunteering with the Hospice Pet Companion program because I know the value of the relationship between humans and their pets," said Brown. "I have enjoyed living with a pet my entire life, and I like to share Trixie with people at a time in their lives when they are unable to have a pet of their own. A smile on a client's face or even just a peaceful sign makes the visit worthwhile. Trixie loves to visit, and I can communicate with anyone through her. She brings out the best in all of us."
Maggie Irwin's Canine Good Citizen certified golden retrievers, Cody and Jackson, are volunteers in various capacities.
"I receive a lot of joy sharing my dogs with others," said Irwin. "While it can be hard seeing someone reaching the end of life, my Cody and Jackson always bring a smile to the clients' faces."
Lynne Wahlstrom and her mother, Cheryl, have two AKC Canine Good Citizen visiting dogs and a dwarf rabbit who visit clients. Lynne has also been a Pet Companionship caregiver to three birds and a cat. She has a background in science and 4-H, so she has a wide range of experience with a variety of animals.
"I love volunteering for Hospice with the pet therapy program because I enjoy seeing the patients and their families smile," said Lynne. "To be able to make them feel better, for even a little while, is such a blessing for them. I am happy that my animals can be that blessing in someone's life."
Rosemary Billquist is a volunteer dog walker, pet caregiver and Hospice client companion with her dog, Katie.
"The biggest reason I started to volunteer with Hospice is because it gives me a chance to share the love that I have been blessed to feel my whole life," said Billquist. "It is nice to share happiness and love with others. I would recommend volunteering because there is nothing like the feeling you get when you make someone happy. It literally makes your heart smile. It is better to know someone for just a little while and lose them than to never know them at all. It is amazing how a relationship can grow in such a short period of time. Life is precious and so are people; it is important to make people feel loved and happy. I have met a lot of wonderful people, not only through Hospice, but within the Hospice organization. It is like a second family. I am so happy to be a part of Hospice."
Hospice Chautauqua County is currently seeking more volunteers for the program. For more information call Mary Jo Bradish, volunteer coordinator, at 338-0033 ext. 216 or visit hospicechautco.org.