For many people, pets are a constant in a life full of change. Our pets are around as we grow from children to adults, graduate, get jobs, get married, and have children of our own. Animals give us stability, joy, humor, loyalty, and much more.
It only makes sense, then, that they are there for us as we near the end of our lives.
Minneapolis-based Grace Hospice, which serves the seven-county metro area, including Eden Prairie, uses volunteer teams — one human and one pet — to bring comfort to those receiving hospice care. To observe a pet visiting a hospice patient is to witness a powerful connection between animal and human.
Evoking smiles, memories
MaryAnn Stevens is talking about the dogs she had throughout her life.
Stevens, 100, resides at Friendship Village, a senior living community in Bloomington. As she begins to talk, she pets the head of Gracie, a 5-year-old moyen (French for “medium”) poodle.
Gracie and her owner, Eden Prairie resident Patty Hauck, have been visiting Stevens for about three months.
Stevens said her family had five dogs at the same time at one point while living in Minneapolis. Speaking about one of her daughters, Stevens said, “She used to take all five of them for a walk on one of those multi-leash things along Minnehaha Parkway.”
She also talks about the dogs she had as a child, including a mischievous Scottish terrier. She said he would chew the slippers. When asked if he got into the family’s food, she responds, “Ugh!” with what sounds like mock exasperation.
There’s no need to clarify that it was mock exasperation, though. When someone else in the room remarks that dogs are pure joy, Stevens smiles brightly and widely, exclaiming, “There’s no question there!”
And Gracie? Stevens is still talking about dogs and other animals she’s had in her life, but Gracie has left Stevens’s bedside and gone to lie down on a couch, seeming to know that one of her jobs — helping people open up — is done for the day.
Hospice history, the power of volunteering
End-of-life care has not always been like this. Most people used to go to the hospital to die. The physical part of dying was at the forefront, with the emotional and spiritual taking a backseat. That began to change, albeit slowly, in the early 1960s when an English nurse named Dame Cicely Saunders introduced the idea to the United States of providing specialized care for the dying, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). Hospice benefits were eventually included in Medicare, but not until the early 1980s.
Sarah Van Winkle, the executive director and president of Grace Hospice who has a background in nursing, remembers those early days of hospice.
“Many people got very excited about this movement, and I happened to be living in Texas at the time, and a very large parish church decided that they wanted to begin to provide (hospice care),” she said.
“There was no funding for it, it was just a mission of the church to provide this. So I was hired as their first hospice nurse, and I just went and we just winged it a bit out in the community.”
The hospice industry has come a long way since then. Many hospice programs are solidly funded, and according to the NHPCO, 1.72 million people received hospice services through Medicare in 2020.
Both Van Winkle and Denise Egan, the volunteer coordinator at Grace Hospice, say that it’s not just the paid staff, but also the volunteers, who provide quality hospice care. The Medicare guidelines require that at least 5% of a hospice provider’s total patient care hours come from volunteers.
“The volunteer program is essential, and it’s so important within the hospice program,” Van Winkle said. “We’ve just got some wonderful people that are out there.”
“They’re angels,” Egan added. “The only skill set we require is that they have heart.”
Those angels include the pets.
Grace Hospice doesn’t require pet volunteers to be therapy or service-certified animals, which allows for more pets (and people) to volunteer.
“We want to educate the community about the opportunity to volunteer with hospice with their pet that isn’t necessarily therapy-certified,” Egan said.
“And hospice can be an intimidating thing, like ‘Oh, I’m not sure I want to volunteer,’” she continued. “But if you get to bring your pet, and you’re almost guaranteed a joyful response …”
“It’s a positive experience,” Van Winkle said, finishing Egan’s sentence.
Grace Hospice has about a half dozen human/pet volunteer teams, and they are always looking for more to serve the more than 200 patients in their program.
While dogs are the main types of animal volunteers, Grace Hospice recently had a request for a cat and a bunny.
Making contact, making a connection
Marion Anderson and her 8-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Elsie, are visiting a resident at Eden Prairie Senior Living.
After Anderson enters the room, she places Elsie on the resident’s lap as he sits in a chair. As Anderson and the resident talk, he puts his hands gently on Elsie. The two humans talk about shared life experiences as Elsie eases into place, relaxing.
As the conversation continues, the man is asked the size of a dog he used to have. He spreads his hands a few feet apart, remembering his old dog.
Sensing the imminent
Visits like the ones Hauck and Anderson make with their dogs help the humans and the dogs.
“First off, she loves to be the center of attention,” Hauck said of Gracie. “I think she gets to know these patients.”
Both Hauck and Anderson also talk about the sense that their dogs seem to have of a patient’s condition.
“With the people that are in hospice, she senses that they’re not doing well,” Anderson said of Elsie, a certified service dog. “And that’s why she’s able to stay so calm, because she knows she needs to give love.”
Hauck detailed a story about a patient she and Gracie had visited multiple times. Gracie is not a certified service or therapy dog.
“He would just light up when he would see Gracie,” she said. “The last time we saw him, he was transitioning, and we knew that. We went to see him and she usually would get all excited and that and we walked into the room, and she walked to him, and she wanted to get in bed with him.”
Hauck said Gracie then sat on the floor, crying, while two nurses cared for him and the patient’s wife called family.
“When they were done, (Gracie) went right over to him, his wife pulled back the sheet to let Gracie lick his arm,” she said. She was licking his arm, and (the patient’s wife) was telling her husband, “This is Gracie, that beautiful poodle that comes to see you. She’s come to say goodbye.”
The man died an hour after Hauck and Gracie left. Gracie was pretty much lethargic the rest of that day, Hauck said.
Seeking volunteers, eyes on a larger program
Grace Hospice is not only looking for more volunteers, but more volunteers with pets.
“I think because we’ve seen such success with it and really want to enhance it and grow it, we’re looking to bring more people with pets, but we’re also looking to develop our own pilot project,” Van Winkle said.
Van Winkle said the vision is for Grace Hospice to build a program to certify pets as therapy animals.
“We would love to bring in a therapy trainer,” she said.
The power of pets
Egan, Van Winkle, Hauck, and Anderson all shared more stories about the powerful connections animals have with humans who are ill or in hospice. They all agreed that there is something special about our pets.
“They also, at end-of-life, as Sarah alluded to, they have a sixth sense, many of them, that we don’t have,” Egan said.
About Grace Hospice
Founded in 2015, Grace Hospice is a faith-based organization headquartered in Minneapolis. Grace’s staff and volunteers provide end-of-life care to people in the seven-county metro area.
If you would like to volunteer with Grace Hospice, with or without your pet, contact Denise Egan at 612-409-5393.
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