Creating A Community

One of the things that I love the most about house call work, and hospice in particular, is the sense of community that it creates.  Veterinarians have always played an important role in sustaining and supporting the human-animal bond, but caring for an aging or ailing pet often calls for, and creates, a strong bond between both the caregivers and their nearest and dearest – and going into their homes and helping through that transition lets me bear witness to bonds of family, friendship, and love that I am honored to witness and, on some level, share in.

Autumn Care & Crossings is dedicating this summer to community support and outreach.  The more people are aware of animal hospice, and the important role that senior pets play in our lives, the better the lives of both pets and caregivers will be.  We’re starting, as a culture, to recognize the emotional impact of caring for our pets, and this is amazing – it means that more and more, people will be able to find the support and compassion they need to help them through this emotionally challenging time.  And the more people are aware of options for improving their pet’s quality of life, the more we will be able to act to keep our pets comfortable and happy through the last chapter of their life.

I’ve already taken a few steps to reach out into the

community to spread the word about animal hospice and palliative care.  Boston Voyager has been gracious enough to reach out and write a piece about AC&C, and animal hospice.  I’ve also written an article for A-DOG, the Arlington Dog Owners’ Group, to follow on the talk I gave in the fall about caring for aging pets.

And lastly, AC&C is a sponsor for the 2017 Somerville Dog Festival.  We’ll have a booth at the festival, sharing information about senior pet care, animal hospice, and quality of life, as well as offering supplies for making memorial gardens – please come out and join us!

If you know of an organization or resource in your community that would like to learn more about animal hospice, or a place to spread the word, please let me know!   The more people are aware of this option, and the more caregivers learn that they’re not alone in this phase of life, the better we can make life for people and pets out there.

Silly Wizard

They hold our histories

Live only to love & be loved.Wizard
Each fills space in your heart
Creating a place for another
The too quiet house echoes remembrance
Silence ebbs, recedes, displaced by life
Stories shared, brief moments in time
Love will be heard through sadness
Promise grows and flows into light
“A feeling once had is never lost.”

Milestones

I suppose it’s a mark of success in and of itself when a milestone passes and you’re too busy experiencing the event to take time, at that very moment, to celebrate it.

Two weeks ago we celebrated the second anniversary of Autumn Care & Crossings.  What started out as a daydream has turned into a full-time practice, and such a core part of my world that I can no longer imagine what my life would be like without it.  The practice of hospice, the philosophies and teachings, and the mindfulness that comes with it have shaped and colored both the way I work with my patients and their caregivers and every other facet of my life.

In my first year of hospice practice I learned so much about what hospice means, and what running a business means – and those are lessons that I honestly believe will continue to grow and change as long as I’m alive.  This year has seen me take a more formal turn towards both teaching and learning – the former through community outreach and lectures on caring for senior pets, and the latter through the IAAHPC’s Certification Program in Animal Hospice and Palliative Care.  I am so honored to be part of that program – to be able to be present at the start of such an important phase of this profession, and to do my best to offer the highest quality of care to my patients and clients.

At the same time, this year has brought the passing of some of our first and oldest patients.  Saying goodbye to a beloved family member is never easy, and the closeness that hospice care brings means that I share, at some level, in the loss of those pets who have been in my care.  In their memory, and in honor of every pet that has passed while in our care this year, Autumn Care & Crossings will again be making a donation to the MSPCA.  I can think of no better way to celebrate the lives of all of these beloved pets than by helping another animal to become the beloved companion of a caring and loving family.

The longer I travel along this path of hospice and end-of-life care, the more blessed I feel to have been called to it.  And it is the pets and the caregivers themselves who make me feel so lucky – I am grateful beyond words to every family that has opened their home to me and trusted me to shepherd them and their beloved companions through this transition, for every hug, every smile, every tear, and every wag and purr.  This is a precious phase of life, and you honor me by letting me be part of your team.  Thank you.

Molli

Molli came into our lives 17 years ago brought to us from a dear friend.  As soon as Molli walked out of her carrier she knew right away that this was her forever home. She always walked around with her beautiful tail straight up in the air with that curious question mark at the end ready for her next adventure.  She was not a lap cat but always used your hip like a pillow. Whatever room we were in she would grace us with her presence.  She was a seasoned mouser and whenever a fly got into the house it was doomed right from the start.  She absolutely loved to help me “make theIMAG1878-1-1-1 bed”! She loved playing hide and seek! We have so many loving memories. I could go on and on but…

It was in August 2016 that Dr. Becky came into our lives. We knew we did not want to put Molls through surgery and chemotherapy when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. With Dr. Becky’s kind and supportive care we were able to give Molli quality of life through the end. Dr. Becky always helped us feel comfortable with our decision to provide palliative care and would prepare us to make that heart- wrenching decision when the time came.  So on January 20, 2017 Dr. Becky was there for us. She explained to us what to expect to help Molli have a peaceful crossing. From beginning to end Dr. Becky was there for us.

Bonding With Older Pets

As our pets age, we face many different challenges and changes in our relationships with them.  Part of this comes with the transition from companion to caregiver – older pets often require more support, medical care, and supervision, leading to a change in how we spend our time with them and how our pets behave around us.  But there’s also the fact that frequently older pets aren’t interested in, or able to, take part in shared favorite activities.  Dogs may be less interested in going for car rides or long runs; cats may not sleep in our beds or chase their toys anymore; and these changes impact our bond with them at the same time that we’re facing fear from difficult diagnoses, stress from changing care schedules, and frustration from struggling to medicate our pets or manage the symptoms of their illness or aging.

In times like this, it’s incredibly important to find ways to maintain and support that bond, and to engage with our aging and ailing pets in ways that make them happy and remind us of our love for them and the joy they bring into our lives.   Older pets can still be active parts of our families and our lives, and can still be incredible sources of love and happiness, if we’re willing to work with them.

Every pet is different, but there are almost always ways to adapt their favorite activities to fit with their current levels of energy, mobility, and strength.  For dogs with arthritis and mobility problems, the change can be as simple as adjusting your walking routines.  Shorter walks can still be fun and bonding – or, if your pet isn’t able to walk all the way to the park and back, it may be easier to drive to the park and walk around there, then drive home.  Adapting your route can help as well; walking on level ground instead of hilly areas or on surfaces with more traction can help an older pet still enjoy their time outside.

Dogs who used to love to chase toys but aren’t able to run anymore can still engage in their favorite toy by walking after a slowly rolled ball, or a toy that was gently tossed a short distance.  If your pet used to love car rides but now gets anxious in the car or can’t jump in anymore, mobility aids may help – a ramp or stairs to get into the car, and a seat belt harness once they’re inside, may help them enjoy this shared activity again.

Older cats may withdraw from family due to unrecognized joint pain – if your kitty isn’t hopping up onto the bed or sofa, talk to your veterinarian to see if they’re actually in discomfort and if there’s anything that can be done medically to treat them.  Also, stairs or ramps up to furniture can make it easier for an older pet with arthritis or limited strength to get back to their favorite perches.  Older pets also often have diminished senses; toys with brighter colors, bells, or scented with catnip may be more appealing and more likely to encourage them to play and interact – and just like dogs, a few shorter play sessions may be more fun for a pet that tires easily.

Ultimately, think about what you and your pet loved doing together, and talk to your veterinarian.  Together, you can put together a plan to keep that shared fun in you and your pet’s life, and keep your relationship with them positive and rewarding at this new stage in their life.

Buddy

 

Buddy, our handsome Golden boy, was well known in our town. For twelve years, daily wadsc_0174lks took him and his Golden “sister” Kara through the town square with stops at the library, church, banks, real estate office, coffee shop, and ice cream shop to say Hi to friends. He marched in Little League parades and performed in the dog show at the local summer festival. He especially loved running on the beach, chasing seagulls. He was really fast, even as he got older. People would just stop and watch him. His speed was impressive. Everyone loved Buddy and he loved everyone! And he so loved his family. He knew each of us by name and was always happy and excited to see us…even if we just went to check the mailbox. He really was loyal and faithful, true to his name.

 

At age 12½, Buddy suddenly fell ill. It came on quickly. We were devastated. Although Buddy was always happy to go anywhere, the vet’s office was not his favorite place. He would park his 65 pound body on my lap and give me that “please protect me” look with his big brown eyes. We always knew that if the time came that we had to make an end-of-life decision for Buddy, we wanted his last moments to be at home surrounded by the family that loved him. And then that day came. Although saying goodbye to Buddy was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do, Dr. Schoenberg made it the best experience it could possibly be for both Buddy and for us. That means a lot.

 

Since Buddy’s passing, many people have told us how he touched their lives or made them smile. Many people have cried with us and for us at the loss of such a special member of our family. His passing was mentioned in the local newspaper. Losing Buddy was hard beyond words, but knowing that we did the right thing for our precious boy by having Dr. Schoenberg come to our home so he could pass in a place that he loved surrounded by those who loved him gives us comfort. And we know he’s chasing seagulls…still the fastest dog on the beach.

What Is Normal?

Facing the loss of a pet brings so many challenges to the people going through that experience – but the longer I work in hospice and end-of-life care, the more I realize that one of the most difficult parts of this loss for many people is just the fact that we live in a culture that doesn’t give us a guideline for how to navigate such a tragedy.

While everyone experiences grief differently, for most forms of loss there are standard procedures and behaviors that we can look to, that help shape our reactions and let us know that what we’re going through is normal and accepted.  We cry, we hold funerals, we send flowers, we partake in rituals that are given to us by our faith, our families, and our communities.  But very few of those resources exist for the loss of a pet, and so often people don’t know quite how to behave or react in the face of that pain.

So many times I hear clients ask me, ‘Is this normal?’ or ‘Does everybody do this?’  Or, even more tragically, they hesitate to ask for things that may comfort them or aid them in their grieving process because they are afraid that it will seem strange or silly.  And I want, more than anything, to help dispel that fear and reassure everyone reading this that, whatever shape it takes, your path through loss is the right one for you.

First, grief is universal in the face of loss.  Different people may express it in different ways – some people cry, some are quiet, some tell stories; some people need company and others need to be alone; some need to take action and others need time for introspection – but those are all reactions to the pain and heartache of losing a living being that you shared your life with.  It is entirely normal to hurt, to feel sorrow, and to mourn that loss.  You are not alone or unusual in loving, caring, or hurting, and there is nothing wrong with having such love and compassion in your life that you grieve when that part of your family is no longer with you.

Secondly, for all that grief is universal, mourning and memorializing are incredibly unique and personal.  We all bring our own beliefs, history, and experiences with us to every relationship in our life, and to the passings that happen when those relationships end.  As tragic as death is, every loss is in some way a celebration of the bond shared between the being that passes and the person or people who loved them, and a final chance to act to honor that bond.

If there is something that feels like an appropriate way to honor your pet’s passing, or that would comfort you in the face of that loss, please tell your veterinarian.  I promise you, it is not silly, you will not startle or offend us, and if anything we will be grateful for the trust you are showing us and the chance we have to help you and your beloved pet.  Whether it’s making them a favorite meal first, singing a favorite song or reading a prayer or poem, having pictures of family who can’t be present nearby, saving a lock of fur, sending them with a favorite toy, treat, or symbol of faith after they have passed, or any other act that may feel right to you, please do tell us.  This is part of why I describe what we do as end-of-life care, and not just euthanasia – there is so much more to saying goodbye to a beloved pet than just the act of helping them pass, and both you and your pet deserve to be cared for with compassion, respect, and kindness throughout that experience.

I’ve said before that there is no one right or wrong way to grieve, and that holds true for the process of letting go.  It seems paradoxical to say both that grieving is normal and that each person’s grief process is different and special, yet both are true, and worry and self-consciousness have no place interfering in such a challenging time.  Your bond with your pet is unique, and it is our job (and our honor) as hospice veterinarians and caretakers of that bond to help both you and your pet navigate this final chapter of their life in the best way possible.

Memorials

Most of the time here, when I write it’s about how to take care of our beloved pets through the course of chronic or terminal illness, and how to take care of ourselves as we face that process.  But it’s important to remember that our relationships with the animals that share our lives don’t end when those animals pass away, and that hospice and end-of-life care also encompasses honoring that bond and supporting the caregivers after a loss.

Our culture has many commonly accepted ways to honor and remember the loss of people in our lives, but often I’m faced with clients who want to find some special way to remember a beloved pet but don’t have an idea of how.  So I thought I’d put together a list of some ways to celebrate the memory of a pet that has passed.

  1. Create a photo pillow – You can take a favorite picture of your pet and make a pillow.  If your pet had a favorite blanket, you can use that fabric for the pillow as well.  http://inhabitat.com/how-to-make-personalized-photo-pillows-for-your-friends-and-family/
  2. Make a keepsake box – this can be a way to save treasured items in a special place. http://www.countryliving.com/diy-crafts/how-to/g432/memory-boxes-0704/?
  3. Sponsor a service dog in their memory – So many animals out there serve as much more than pets for the people who depend upon them.  Helping someone get the service dog they need can be an incredible way to honor the bond you had with your pet.  http://www.guidedogsofamerica.org/1/help/sponsorship/
  4. Take part in a charity walk or other event to help support pets in need: Here in Massachusetts the MSPCA runs an annual charity walk; similar events take place around the world.  https://www.mspca.org/featured_events/walk-for-animals/
  5. Write: Tell the story of your pet and your life together.  This may take the form of a blog post, poetry, a story, a childen’s book, or whatever form seems most appropriate to you.  Whether you share it with friends, the world, or keep the words for yourself, creating the story can be an incredible act of celebration and memory.
  6. Hold a memorial service: invite your friends and family who also loved your pet to come together and celebrate their life.  Ask everyone to share a favorite picture and memory of the pet, and celebrate your time together.
  7. Memorial jewelry: This can be anything from a pawprint necklace to a bracelet charm made from their collar or tags.  There are also necklaces that can be made to hold a small amount of ash, if you have your pet privately cremated.
  8. Make a memorial garden: Plant a tree, a flower bush, or if you don’t have an outdoor space, a house plant in honor and memory of your pet.
  9. Commission a painting: have a portrait made from your favorite picture of your pet, to hang in a place of honor in your home.
  10. Make a memorial stone: Even if you are not able to bury your beloved pet, an engraved stone can still help remember and honor them.  You can make one yourself and decorate it with family members, or order one custom-made for your pet.

These are just a small handful of ideas – there are so many other beautiful ways to honor and celebrate those who have passed from our lives – but I hope they can act as inspiration for those of you facing the challenge of how to create a fitting memorial for a pet that you have lost.

National Pet Memorial Day

Today is National Pet Memorial Day – a day for celebrating and remembering all of the special animals who have made our lives better with their presence. AC&C is hosting an online memorial today; we invite everyone to comment here andpercy share memories, pictures, and stories here in honor of our beloved pets.

I have been lucky enough to share my life with so many amazing and beloved pets, but most of all today I want to celebrate Percival. My best friend, constant companion, study buddy all through vet school, and the cat who taught my current kittens how to be cats. He crossed half the country with me, slept on my pillow every night for over a decade, and his presence is still felt in my life every day.

Thank you, Percy, for so many years of love. I still love you, I miss you, and you made my life better with your presence.