Caring For The Caregivers

When I talk to people about animal hospice, whether it’s to potential clients, other doctors, or people curious about the field, the biggest assumption I have to face is that what I do is primarily about prescribing medications.  There’s a belief that, because this is a field of medicine, it must obviously be focused around, and limited to, using drugs to treat symptoms.  And I’ve addressed many facets of that fallacy here.  I’ve talked about the importance of nutrition, of environmental modification, of emergency planning, and supporting quality of life, all of which are important, non-prescription-related facets of hospice and palliative care.

But one of the most important roles of animal hospice, and one of the most unrecognized ones, is something that I haven’t talked about yet – and that’s our role in taking care of the people who take care of their pets.

When a family brings a hospice and palliative care veterinarian into their care team, that doctor isn’t only stepping in to help the animal.  The human family members are as much part of the patient unit as the pet is, and the focus of care is directed equally at them.  Caring for a pet with a terminal or life-limiting illness is stressful, exhausting, scary, time-consuming, and something that most people’s day-to-day life experience neither prepares them for nor gives them the time and resources to manage, and the animal hospice team is there to help them through this process.

Caregiver support can take many different shapes.  Education is a large part of it – knowing more about your pet’s diagnosis and the signs they’re likely to show will help you provide better care for them, but it can also help you prepare for emotional hurdles, plan and budget your resources of both time and finances, and face upcoming decisions with more confidence.  Pairing caregivers with resources is incredibly important as well – helping a family find a skilled and trustworthy person to care for their ailing pet when they’re not home, finding a pharmacy that can make more palatable medications, interpreting a specialist’s instructions or recommendations, or providing references to a therapist or counselor who is sensitive to their specific needs are all services that hospice vets can provide.

Above and beyond this, every family has their own unique, special needs and challenges.  Some individuals have physical challenges that make caring for their pet difficult, and a hospice vet can help navigate these, finding ways to modify a pet’s care to accommodate visual, physical, or situational challenges.  Other families may need help communicating among themselves, or coming to consensus as different individuals have different priorities or concerns about their beloved pet’s care.  And many people may simply need the support of a compassionate and understanding person to talk through as they face the incredibly difficult challenge of taking responsibility for making life and death decisions for another being, to reassure them that the path they’re choosing is a fair, ethical, and loving one.  Lastly, a hospice veterinarian will help make sure that any care plan focuses on your own priorities, concerns, and needs – there is no ‘one size fits all’ hospice plan.

So often, people believe they and their pet aren’t candidates for hospice and palliative care because they believe there is nothing that can be done for their pet.  While this is almost never true, the equally important fact is that hospice can help them as well.