Pets play a surprising role at Hope HealthCare Services
When a patient wasn’t responding to questions and didn’t even want to open her eyes, health care staff struggled for answers. But the day a Hope HealthCare Services volunteer brought her Bella to visit, things changed. “When Bella [a shih tzu puppy] was lifted into the patient’s lap, the woman opened her eyes, gave a huge smile and told Bella she was a very cute dog,” says Amy Objartel, director of missions support for Hope HealthCare Services in Fort Myers. “Everyone was near tears.”
Bella is one of many pets bringing joy and meaning to Hope Hospice Houses and to Hope patients residing in assisted living or senior nursing facilities. Objartel shares another story of a patient suffering from dementia who had become afraid of his bedroom and refused to go to bed―until his dog, Rebel, helped him overcome the fear. “Rebel walked into the room and jumped onto the bed,” she says. “Our patient smiled and said, ‘I guess it’s OK, then’ and followed Rebel’s lead.”
These four-legged friends are part of the successful Hope Hospice Pet Program that creates and maintains an intimate and fun connection between patients and domestic pets. The program started in the 1980s, when, Objartel says, volunteers helped pet owners with care such as dog walking, changing litter and playtime. Volunteers were soon taking companions such as Bella to visit patients, adding joy to everyone’s life.
Over time, as pets have become part of the family at Hope Hospice, staff learned that pet visits aren’t the only way to help―the costs of maintaining a pet can mount. “We learned that financial limitations caused some patients to sacrifice their
own meals to feed their animals, and we knew we had to provide pet food to those most in need," Objartel says. She notes they they also began providing pet flea prevention and vet services for those who couldn’t afford it.
Science is one reason Hope HealthCare Services has involved pets in many aspects of a patient’s life. According to research by the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, nursing home residents with dementia showed a statistically significant decrease in agitation and an increase in social interaction after weeks of pet therapy. Another study by the American Heart Association in 2005 demonstrated that therapy dog visits improved heart and lung functions by decreasing anxiety among patients with heart failure. “Beyond the medical literature, we’ve had first-hand evidence of the benefits of pets for those in our care,” Objartel says.
Caution is part of the program, however. Prior to visits, an animal behaviorist looks at each pet to make sure it’s wellbehaved, clean, friendly and doesn’t get startled easily by unusual situations or sounds. The facility allows family pet visits to last for hours at a time, Objartel says, as long as they are accompanied by a family member or friend.
The sudden departure of companionship also affects pets,
PETS PROVIDE UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND GREAT COMFORT, WHICH IS WHAT WE WANT FOR EVERYONE IN OUR CARE.”
—AMY OBJARTEL, DIRECTOR OF MISSIONS SUPPORT FOR HOPE HEALTHCARE SERVICES
missing their owners just as much as owners miss them. And sometimes it’s the pets that are being left at home alone, when owners leave for assisted living or senior nursing facilities and can’t care for them anymore. Hope HealthCare Services doesn’t neglect that situation. Program volunteers go to patient homes to exercise and play with companion pets, deliver food and take them to veterinary and grooming appointments. Furthermore, staff and volunteers also find a new home for pets in cases when a patient is no longer able or dies and there is no family to take over ownership.
Pets aren’t only four-legged furry animals we keep around for good company, but over the years, they have become our best friends and family we don’t wish to live without. Pets are great listeners, and they are there no matter how tough days get. Knowing how strong and important the patient-pet connection is, Hope HealthCare Services finds several ways to cherish that relationship. “Pets provide unconditional love and great comfort, which is what we want for everyone in our care,” Objartel says. “Hope will do all that we can to keep pets and their people together― especially at a time when it matters most.”
SCIENCE IS ONE REASON HOPE HEALTHCARE SERVICES HAS INVOLVED PETS IN MANY ASPECTS OF A PATIENT’S LIFE.
Lois Barrett (right) welcomes Loretta Bartoletti and her pet at Joanne's House in Bonita.
Aneysha (left) and Shanelles Vasquez say hello to Tally, a Clydesdale. Romeo (top right) is a kid favorite. Pet visitor Sami (below right) and Hope staffer Gerry Louima brighten Ann Brown's day.
Christopher Wavershak (above) greets Missy, a golden retriever. Hope pet Lucky is Ian Brent's new best friend. Hope's pet partnership started in the 1980s.