10/26/2008 by wendtworth
By Sharon L. Peters
COLORADO SPRINGS — When Nancy Leader learned a few weeks ago the cancer she successfully fought two decades ago now has invaded her liver and is regarded as terminal, she began systematically working through her most heartfelt responsibilities..
She has spoken with her sons and grandchildren, assuring each she’s not afraid, that her faith is a cloak of comfort. While it’s still possible, she has tackled every matter she can tend to in order to reduce loose ends for her husband. And she has made arrangements for her beloved cats, Mollee and Rocky.
“They’re my cats, always have been,” she says, “and it would not be fair to my husband, who’s really not a cat person, to have to deal with them.”
Leader and the cats have met with volunteers from Safe Place, a non-profit that has found homes for more than 400 pets for terminally ill people in southern Colorado. And when Leader believes the time is right — “when I can no longer care for them” — Mollee and Rocky will be placed into a carefully selected home similar to the one they’ve always known.
“It cushions things a bit,” Leader says, knowing the cats will be loved after she’s gone.
Non-profit programs such as Safe Place are quietly sprouting all over the country to ensure that critically or terminally ill people have one less stressor.
“Most people regard their pets as an important part of the family,” says Safe Place founder Joanne Bonicelli. “The peace of mind of knowing that this animal will be cared for is very significant.”
Some ill people have few relationships and therefore no alternative-care option for their animals; for various reasons, sometimes even those with many friends and relatives can’t place their cat or dog with them when the time comes, Bonicelli says.
People who ask for Safe Place assistance, which is provided without charge, dictate the timing of pet relinquishment. Some, particularly those who have been in declining health and haven’t been able to give proper care and attention to their animals, turn them over months before the final days arrive. Others keep their pets with them until hours before they die.
Peace of mind goes a long way
Although the group puts adopters through rigorous screening, it has never been unable to find a pet a home after temporary placement with a foster-care volunteer.
“We place animals with the same tenacity we would employ if we were placing children,” Bonicelli says. “Our mission brings a different kind of adopter forward. Many people, we’ve discovered, want to provide homes for pets of the terminally ill. It’s almost a public service for them.”
In Tulsa, the Pet Peace of Mind program of Hospice of Green Country provides a range of services to its clients, from transportation to and payment for vet care or grooming to buying food, medication or cat litter.
“We do the part or parts the hospice clients can’t do. Sometimes that’s a little, and sometimes that’s a lot,” says veterinarian-turned-hospice chaplain Delana Taylor McNac, who started the program in July with money from an anonymous donor.
“We’ve had people weep for what we can do. Sometimes the only one who’s rallied around the person during illness is the pet.”
All too often, she says, terminally ill patients give up their pets because they can’t afford pet food or vet care, and in many cases, this has “triggered a rapid decline” in people. Conversely, when they can keep their animals and the stress of paying for decent pet food or medications has been removed, “they are more content, more at ease with the process they are going through.”
Most of the 50 Pet Peace of Mind clients already have made arrangements with friends or family to take their pets after they die. When they haven’t, Taylor McNac works with local rescue groups to find homes, “and they say this is a great comfort to them.”
“Many patients aren’t afraid to die,” Bonicelli says. “They’re afraid of unfinished business, and the care after they’re gone of their pets can be a very large piece of unfinished business.”
Food and vet care also needed
Some of the growing number of pet-care non-profits serve not only the terminally ill but also those on low incomes who are disabled, chronically ill, HIV/AIDS symptomatic or elderly. P.A.L.S. (Pets Are Loving Support) Atlanta is one of them.
“When people become ill or disabled or homebound for any reason, the animal is sometimes the one thing that gets them out of bed in the morning,” says Kevin Bryant, P.A.L.S. Atlanta operation director.
The group delivers free pet food and cat litter and pays for annual vet visit and shots. The assistance often is the tipping point that allows a person to keep a pet, Bryant says. In many cases, it gives people who were skipping meals or medicine to feed their animals the little boost necessary to take better care of themselves.
Bryant tells of one elderly client who used to pass up doctor visits to feed her beloved dachshund mix. Now she gets regular dog food deliveries. “It’s like you’re breathing air into her lungs when you arrive with that food. That little extra support makes a world of difference to her life.”
PETS PROVIDE MUCH COMFORT
Scores of studies have shown physical and emotional benefits come to ill or aging people who have contact with animals. Experts cite several, including:
• Petting a dog has been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure.
• Pets in nursing homes boost moods, heighten alertness and enhance social interactions.
• Dog owners require less medical care for stress-related aches and pains than people without dogs.
• Heart patients owning pets are significantly more likely to be alive a year after hospital discharge than those without pets.
• Ill people with regular animal contact report fewer feelings of isolation.
USA Today article click here