Hospice care provides support and comfort to patients having a six-month life expectancy. Volunteers interested in working with patients on hospice care go through an extensive training period to prepare for this type of work. The work can be emotionally draining, but extremely rewarding. You become a part of the circle of support for the person, and for the family of the individual, as well.
In training, one is taught that silence is often what is needed from a hospice volunteer… regular, everyday subject matter is unimportant. Being silent can be hard for humans, we feel compelled to fill the silence with words. Listening, too, is equally important. Whether it be the patient that wants you to sit silently and listen to everything he wants to say, or the family member that needs someone to talk to. We need to train ourselves, as human beings normally talkative and avoiding silence, to sit silently and listen – if that is what the situation calls for.
This is where therapy dogs make great hospice volunteers. They are naturals when it comes to providing a quiet, listening ear. They provide what is greatly needed at this stage – soft touch, and a feeling of warmth and caring. A therapy dog will sit in a chair next to the patient, lie down at his feet, or lie alongside him in bed and listen quietly for a very long time.
One of our Bright Spot volunteers reports that patients will frequently pet her dog Suzie and launch into conversation about the dogs in their lives, they then continue to talk about many other things, all the while petting the dog. Family members or the attending care provider have often told her that prior to her visit with Suzie, the patient had been sad, reluctant to talk, had a variety of discomforts, but after the dog’s visit, the patient was more positive, talking more and taking more interest in life and activities. Another volunteer visiting hospice patients with her toy poodle, Buddy tells me that she tucks tiny Buddy right in bed with the patient. He gives them kisses and they make a fuss over him. A volunteer that visits a hospice patient in her home with her two small Portuguese Podengos tells me that the patient adores the dogs and giggles the entire time. One dog sits up on the patient’s lap while the other sits on the floor next to her and she gives him a brushing. Her children are very happy that their mom gets a regular visit from both two-legged and four-legged friends. This volunteer believes that their visits have had a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of the patient.
The Director of a local Hospice Life Care Program has told me that she loves to have therapy dogs visit the facility. She has witnessed dramatic changes in Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients. Typically these patients show little eye contact, movement, and utter very little speech, but when a therapy dog visits, they focus on the dog, pet him, smile, and often try to speak. The dog’s presence touches something in them that may trigger a memory – something. Something is triggered that no human is able to elicit. Patients that don’t want a human volunteer visitor will accept the dog visitor, let the dog jump up on the bed, pet and talk to the dog – then turn and talk to the dog owner.
Clearly, therapy dogs provide socialization, diversion from pain, and pure enjoyment. As volunteers, one finds comfort in knowing that our visits with our therapy dogs have helped the patient die peacefully and comfortably – the goal of the Hospice Program.