Volunteer program provides assistance to patients and pets

BY DORA GROTE | MARCH 29, 2012 6:30 AM

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Helen Richerson sat quietly in her chair enjoying the company of her dog, Bella, giving her puppy-dog kisses. Richerson said she has been a pet-lover since she was 7 years old but caring for her pets has become increasingly difficult now that she is in her 80s.

"I love animals, and I would not be without animals if I were a younger person," Richerson said. "I thought to myself I should find homes for these animals before anything happens to me."

Richerson's love of pets led her to participate in the Pet Peace of Mind program while she is a patient at Iowa City Hospice.

Pet Peace of Mind is an organization run by the hospice to train volunteers to care for the pets of terminally ill patients who may need assistance with their animals. The program's second training session was held last week, increasing the number of volunteers from 18 to 34.

Sarah Neary, the volunteer coordinator for Iowa City Hospice, said the program helps increase the quality of life of patients, because they are comforted by knowing their pets are being treated well.

"What I love most is Helen sees the volunteers as an extension of her own love and care," Neary said of the participant. "And that's what we are, an extension and support system for our patients."

The Iowa City program, launched in September 2011, received $5,000 for start-up costs last year from Banfield Charitable Trust . Council Bluffs and West Des Moines are also sites for the national organization.

On a chilly Monday morning, volunteer Lucy Choisser took Bella, a Maltipoo — a cross between a Maltese and a poodle — on a 20-minute walk. The 64-year-old looks after Richerson's pets once a week.

"I've always had pets, and I think it's really important to people to have their pets — particularly at this time of their life," Choisser said after the walk. "I looked for a volunteer opportunity, and this was perfect for me. It's something I could be motivated in and engaged in."

Choisser and fellow volunteers take on such responsibilities as delivering food, grooming, and arranging family portraits of patients and their pets.

Since the program launched, Neary said, it has received 22 requests from patients to help take care of their pets.

"Caring for people's pets mirrors and really amplifies our care for our patients," Neary said. "When we provide care for people's pets, we are symbolically providing care for our patients. It means more to people than the actual care that they give themselves, and it registers on a deeper level."

Choisser, who began volunteering in October, said it really makes Richerson happy.

"It's a great program," Choisser said. "It's by choice of people and helps with things that helps keep their pet in their home with them."

Janet Ashman, the coordinator of foster care and adoption program of Johnson County Human Society, said planning care for pets is very important.

"Animals always get the short shrift, and it doesn't have to be that way," Ashman said.

Ashman, who is also a volunteer for the program, said helping patients is a gratifying experience.

"Anything you do is so appreciated because people don't expect it," she said. "It's a privilege."

Neary also said there is a special connection between pets and their owners.

"Our pets are always going to be there for us," she said. "They don't care if we look different or if our energy levels are different that day. You know that people love their pets, but from this program I have learned the depth of their impact."

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