“It is a constant reminder of how precious life is,” says Jenny Johnson, volunteer coordinator at Willamette Valley Hospice, describing her work. Her organization is one of more than 100 hospices nationally that have implemented the Pet Peace of Mind program (PPOM), which helps hospice patients with pet care through their end of life process.
The program was created in 2009 by Banfield Charitable Trust (BCT) to assist hospice patients with their pets as a part of its mission to keep pets out of shelters and with their owners. Nonprofit hospice organizations can apply and, if approved, BCT becomes their initial funder and advisor, providing guidelines on how and what services can be offered, how to track and fund the program, and how to coordinate volunteers. The hospice receives a $5000 grant to launch the program, and chooses which aspects their organization will adopt.
Hospices offering the program locally include Mt Hood Hospice (MHH) in Sandy, Willamette Valley Hospice (WVH) in Salem, and Community Home Health and Hospice (CHHH) in Longview. While the program works a little differently at each location, there are strong shared core values — first and foremost that pets are family.
“When someone is facing a life-limiting terminal illness,” Johnson explains, “their world shrinks. They don’t have energy. They aren’t working anymore. They can’t drive, don’t feel good, don’t go out. Their pet is a best friend — family — the reason they want to get up in the morning, a reason to live.”
Johnson tells of a recent patient in the program whose only family was her dog. Staff began each day by asking about her dog because it instantly changed her perspective and spurred her to keep fighting.
Emilie Cartoun, director of volunteer services and bereavement coordinator at MHH, remembers Bob, who was on their hospice service for almost a year with his cat, Boots. “As the months went by and Bob became increasingly memory-impaired, his daughter told us that whenever he left his room he would be very anxious about getting back until he found Boots, which let him know he was in the right place. Boots was his anchor, identifying his home for him.”
Another shared thread among program coordinators Johnson, Cartoun and Debby Carter (volunteer coordinator at CHHH) is that they were all led to work in hospice after experiencing loss in their own lives. After losing her mother to cancer, Cartoun volunteered at MHH for almost 10 years, and in 1995 became a paid staff member.
Carter also lost her mother to cancer, and shortly after began volunteering in hospice with her daughter. This motivated her to become a CNA at the CHHH in-patient care center for 10 years, and she now manages the PPOM program.
Johnson lost her dad when she was 17, after which her psychology professor encouraged her to consider working in the field. She began a college support program called Ailing Mothers and Fathers, and after graduation moved into her current role, which she calls a “perfect fit.”
All three organizations have long valued the role of pets in their patients’ lives, and the PPOM program provided the structure and funding to formalize their support. Carter says that even before the program, many staff and volunteers helped patients care for their pets, including adopting them. “When you’re an animal person you can’t imagine not being able to care for your pet; not being able to walk him because you’re sick in bed, or not being able to feed him because of your own medical expenses,” she says.
Johnson recalls a nurse who adopted a senior cat and an older blind dog with a seizure disorder. In another case, a volunteer adopted a dog with a seizure disorder requiring twice weekly vet visits so the dog wouldn’t have to go through transitioning into yet another home.
Many of these hospice patients receive in-home care, which enables them to keep their pets with them. Visiting volunteers provide basic pet care, like dog-walking and litterbox cleaning. They develop a relationship with the people and the animals, who are often protective of their owners they intuitively know are hurting and sick. In situations where pets are behind on care, volunteers help coordinate veterinary and grooming visits, including transportation.
Cartoun says, “Since many of these animal companions spend time in bed with their humans, we are happy to help ensure that they are clean, healthy and parasite-free.” All of these services, and more – like licensing, flea meds, and pet food, are covered by PPOM.
A common challenge is the basic perception of hospice. According to Johnson, “People think it’s depressing and sad. Unless you really know about the joy behind and the purpose of hospice, it is hard to want to be involved. [We want to] give people access to the best compassionate care possible so that they can have a good end of life experience and embrace the things they love.”
Dianne McGill, recent BCT Executive Director, has seen many overcome their fears about hospice through the PPOM program. Volunteers and donors alike become involved to support the pets, then fall in love with the mission of hospice. “It is not about death, but quality of life and living to the fullest,” she says.
The rewards of PPOM are plentiful. Carter, who has her own adopted Pit mix at home, says, “As a pet lover, it’s fun to work with people and their pets. I understand the connection people have with their pets. Putting myself in the place of someone who is ill, I know I would want to be able to keep my dog because of the comfort, and companionship, and unconditional love they offer.”
Johnson says she was blown away by the impact of the program. “People will cry on the phone about how thankful and grateful they are on a weekly basis. It is one less thing for people to worry about. It is fantastic to be able to offer that kind of help.”
One woman, whose husband was a PPOM patient, contacted Carter because she was having difficulty caring for her husband’s small dog. She was a full-time teacher, and her time at home was spent on laundry, groceries, and chores. She said the program was “truly a blessing,” allowing her to focus on her husband during this important time.
WVH has gone a step further, connecting with local organizations to assist with pet placement. Nicky, a Doberman who was very bonded with his owner, would jump in bed to be with her, inadvertently pulling out her tubes, creating an unsafe situation. Through the hospice’s connections, Nicky was placed with a foster family with other Dobermans.
Sadly, Nicky was found to have cancer soon after, and was humanely euthanized at a local emergency clinic several weeks later, after also developing bloat in the night. Nicky passed away within hours of his beloved owner, and his foster family cared so deeply they kept his ashes and a memorial plaque. When the owner’s daughter reached out a month later after thinking and dreaming of Nicky, she was able to meet the foster dad and receive Nicky’s plaque and ashes. Those are now buried with his owner, exactly as she would have wished, which is a comfort to the family.
McGill of BCT shares a favorite story in which a mid-Western rancher in a hospice home was asked what could be done to help him. He asked to say goodbye to his three beloved horses. The hospice moved him to a first-floor room with a window, brought his horses in with a trailer, and the horses were able to nuzzle the rancher before he passed away.
Beyond overcoming misconceptions about hospice, a big challenge for PPOM is funding. After the initial grant from BCT, PPOM hospices are responsible for fundraising to sustain the program. Some local veterinarians and groomers offer discounted services, and WHV even has a volunteer pet taxi driver, Papa Tom, who transports animals and stays with them during appointments. WVH also hosts an annual Walk and Wag event, which not only increases awareness of hospice, but has raised over $17,000 each year. Johnson says, “The more resources [we have], the more we can offer people.” Whenever possible, WVH covers medical costs to make pets healthy before placement through their shelter partners.
For anyone interested in supporting the Pet Peace of Mind program, the greatest need is financial. Also needed are hospice volunteers and business partners. Donations may be made to the hospice directly, or to Banfield Charitable Trust, which is currently helping 200 more hospice organizations implement the PPOM program.
McGill sums up BCT’s efforts as “joyful, mission-based work, every single day.”
Willamette Valley Hospice www.wvh.org • 503-588-3600
Community Home Health & Hospice www.chhh.org • 360-253-4626
Mt Hood Hospice www.mthoodhospice.com • 503-668-5545
Daniela Iancu, founder of Animal Community Talks, has worked and volunteered with veterinary practices and animal welfare organizations in the Portland area for the last decade. Her happy home includes a wonderfully supportive husband and two senior felines.