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Pets are Important to End-of-Life Patients

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by Toni L. Eaton

President/CEO, Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care

For many of us, pets are part of our family. At a local community hospice, such as Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care, we are witness every day to these loving relationships between cats, dogs, birds and their people. Pets are a life-affirming force for many hospice patients, giving them unconditional love and companionship, easing loneliness and providing comfort. Because of the depth of that bond, especially as end of life nears, concerns about the welfare of these animal loved ones become a cause of real worry and stress. Patients often press us for assurance—they want to know their beloved animals will be taken care of before they can leave this earth.

Sarah L., a nurse at Old Colony Hospice, remembers a Brockton man whose best buddy was a small black lab named Roscoe. The two were devoted to each other. Roscoe lifted the man’s spirits, and the man doted on the dog. Toward the end of his life, the man became agitated about the pet’s future. He had no one who could take him in. Sarah understood this worry and began asking her network of family, friends and coworkers about a home for Roscoe. Her brother knew someone who welcomed Roscoe into his family. With Roscoe safe, the Brockton man died at peace a few days later.

We at Old Colony Hospice, and other hospices throughout the nation, see this situation frequently—patients who cannot rest until their pets are settled. Finding homes for orphaned pets is not technically part of the hospice service, but helping our patients find peace is, and so we try the best we can to help.

The importance of pets isn’t simply sentimental: Research has shown over and over that contact with pets toward the end of life lowers stress and blood pressure and eases depression and loneliness.

A Taunton widow shared her life with a calico cat named Riley. The two friends got a kick out of each other and both understood that Riley was king. As her condition worsened, the cat spent hours on her bed offering precious companionship to her in her last days. The woman told Sarah that before she passed, she wanted to know there would be a place for Riley. Again, Sarah sent out a distress call to her network and the mother of an Old Colony Hospice staff member offered Riley a loving home. Relieved and grateful, the widow died within a few days.

Colleen R., an intake manager at OCH, has a similar story. There was a very big cat named Bailey that came to live as a kitten with a woman named Pat. He filled her life with meaning, and the two were inseparable, except when she was hospitalized with illnesses. These trips became more frequent as years went by. When Pat was away, Bailey pined for her. When Pat came home on hospice care, her main concern was finding a caring home for her loving, longtime companion. Colleen put the word out and another staff member offered to adopt Bailey. Pat cried when she learned her feline loved one would have a home. She died peacefully the next day.

Beloved pets lower stress and provide love. It is a crucial piece, as end of life approaches, that patients know their loved one will be cared for. Talk to your family, friends and your hospice provider to work out a plan for what happens to your pets. We are here to help.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Toni L. Eaton, RN, BSN, MS, is the President & CEO of Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care of West Bridgewater, a dynamic non-profit hospice serving more than 55 communities south of Boston. OCH also runs the Dr. Ruth McLain Hospice Home in Braintree. A native and resident of the South Shore, Toni brings her compassion and experience as a nurse, a veteran, and a community leader to her insightful columns for South Shore Senior News. Her leadership has been honored by several groups including the South Shore Women’s Business Network, and she currently sits on the boards of the Hospice & Palliative Care Federation of Massachusetts and the Brockton Hospital School of Nursing Alumni Association. For more information, call (781) 341-4145 or visit Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care.

Reprinted from the July 2020 edition of the South Shore Senior News.

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