By KATHLEEN NELSON
Lulu found a new home through Pet Peace of Mind. The service gives hospice and palliative care patients the gift of knowing their pets will be well cared for as their health declines.
For a hospice patient living alone, the companionship and unconditional love of a pet can add a layer of comfort and emotional support at a trying time. Yet, caring for a dog, cat, bird or other animal can become increasingly difficult or impossible for a person in declining health. And when end of life approaches, worrying about who will take care of a furry or feathered friend can increase stress and anxiety — exactly what hospice is designed to relieve.
"Pets are family members," said Dianne McGill, president of Pet Peace of Mind, which helps hospice patients maintain the bond with their pets. "Since hospice is a family-centered program for patients, pets fit into that equation. Our services take a lot of the chaos out of patient care. We offer services that a patient may neglect or be incapable of providing and a preferable alternative to sending a pet to a shelter."
Founded in 2009, Pet Peace of Mind works with more than 250 hospices and palliative care programs across the nation, including several in the ministry. Several partners who initially offered the pet care service to hospice patients now make it available to home health and hospital patients too. "It transfers extremely well, but it does require a volunteer infrastructure to staff it," McGill said.
Pet Peace of Mind provides staff and volunteer training, all forms and documents necessary to run the program and ongoing coaching for a one-time training fee.
Lightening the load
Mercy Hospice in St. Louis has a Pet Peace of Mind program that provides financial assistance for pet food, litter and veterinary care including vaccinations, medications and grooming. The program is entirely self-funded through donations from the Nestle Purina PetCare Trust Fund and a grant from Mercy Women with a Mission, part of the Mercy Health Foundation.
"Unfinished business weighs heavily on hospice patients," said Nancy Preheim, manager of client services for Mercy Hospice. "If they don't know what's going to happen with their pet, they hold on and add to their worries. This program enables us to remove one worry from their end-of-life journey."
Kiki and Gizmo
Mercy delivers its services largely though its hospice volunteers, who have walked dogs, delivered food and driven pets to vet visits. (Some services have been limited since the COVID-19 pandemic.) In addition to funding, Mercy Women with a Mission provided a session for volunteers with a pet trainer, who offered insights into pet behavior and how to approach an unfamiliar dog or cat.
Above, a gallery of pets who have found new homes through Pet Peace of Mind programs. Below, Brennan Rumpf snuggles with Max, a 13-year-old terrier mix who his family adopted through the Pet Peace of Mind program at Mercy Hospice in St. Louis.
When end of life nears and the pet of a hospice patient needs a new home, Preheim works with Petfinder, an online, searchable database for pets available for adoption, and relies on volunteers to help spread the word via social media. Preheim provides contact information of prospective owners to the hospice patient and family, who then decide on the best fit.
Wet Nose Project
Among those who have adopted the pet of a hospice patient is Tracy Rumpf, founder of the Wet Nose Project in suburban St. Louis. Her group's mission parallels Pet Peace of Mind, paying for veterinary services of sick, abused and injured animals and building a network to provide homes for terminally ill shelter dogs.
When the first adoptive home didn't work out for Max, a 13-year-old terrier mix owned by a hospice patient, Rumpf agreed to foster him. Max and her son, Brennan, grew so attached, though, that the Rumpfs soon adopted the dog.
"I could see the way he looked at Brennan," said Rumpf, who has fostered several dogs and owns a 90-pound American bulldog. "Max loves the boys in my family. I'm one dog away from a divorce, but my husband loves the fact that Max prefers him over me. He's completely fit into our pack. It's nice to give a hospice patient a sense of peace, knowing we'll take care of Max."
Since starting the program in spring 2019, Mercy has provided services for 29 patients who have owned a total of 34 dogs and 16 cats. The group also found homes for 13 pets, including Max.
"End of life is a time with dignity and respect that should be as stress-free as possible," Preheim said.
Bon Secours Hospice and Palliative Care in Richmond, Virginia, has worked with Pet Peace of Mind since 2013, providing services to 108 families and placing 18 pets in new homes. The program has grown from its own funding, including grants from the Bon Secours Foundation, to help patients pay for medication and grooming. Like Mercy, Bon Secours provides volunteers to walk pets, though the COVID-19 pandemic has limited their participation, and has partnered with a veterinarian who charges reduced fees.
"At a time when they have so many things they have no control over, we want to help in a small way so that they feel a sense of control," Ellen Manning said of hospice patients. She is volunteer services manager for Bon Secours Hospice in Richmond.
She recalled a patient with a terminal illness, living alone with a 10-year-old golden retriever. Because the patient couldn't afford medicine, the dog developed a bad case of fleas. One of her neighbors agreed to walk the dog but was reluctant to do more because she was unsure how sick the dog was. Bon Secours' Pet Peace of Mind provided money for vet services and medication, returning the dog to health, then assisted the neighbor in adopting it.
Perhaps more so than the initial funding, Manning is grateful for the guidance that McGill has provided for seven years. "Dianne reminds us that this is a patient program, not a pet program," she said. "We can't make big promises, but we can take one big worry away."
Manning has adopted one of the dogs of a hospice patient. Manning accompanied McGill on a visit to Congress in January 2019 to showcase the range of hospice services and discuss policy issues with members of Congress.
Other ministry hospices that have joined Pet Peace of Mind include SSM Health at Home–Hospice Care Services in St. Louis; Catholic Hospice in Miami Lakes, Florida, an affiliate of St. Catherine's West Rehabilitation Hospital; PeaceHealth hospices in Eugene and Florence, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington; and Providence Hospice — Portland, Oregon. McGill estimated that Pet Peace of Mind serves about 3,000 people and their pets annually.
"When you're terminally ill, many people stop visiting, so the person-animal bond becomes even more essential," she said. "The program is designed to honor that bond, even after the patient passes."
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