MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. - As a retired psychologist, hospice patient John Joyce understands intellectually how a pet dog can enliven a home.
For the past five years, though, Joyce's pet schnoodle, Lucky, has reminded him of a dog's emotional value.
Treasure Coast Hospice understands that, too. That's why the hospice is one of the first in Florida to launch a Pet Peace of Mind program, with a $5,000 seed grant from Oregon-based Banfield Charitable Trust.
Pet Peace of Mind is a national program designed to help nonprofit hospices keep patients and their pets together by helping care for the pet. So far in Florida, only Treasure Coast Hospice and Cornerstone Hospice, which serves seven Central Florida counties, offer Pet Peace of Mind.
The program was started when Banfield found "that because of all the care the patient is getting, the patient and other caregivers, including other family members, may not be as diligent in taking care of the pet as they had been or would like to be," said Betsy Richardson, the hospice's volunteer program coordinator.
But pets are important.
"For many in hospice care, their pets offer unconditional love, comfort and companionship at a time when it's needed most," said Dr. Louis Benson, Treasure Coast Hospice CEO. "Our mission is to provide compassionate, comprehensive, high-quality care to our patients and those who share their lives, and now that includes the family's pets."
In addition to basic pet care, such as dog walking and litter-box cleaning, trained hospice volunteers can take the pet for veterinarian visits or grooming.
"It's a wonderful program," said Dr. Jason White, a consulting veterinarian to the Treasure Coast Hospice. "It's helping patients in so many aspects, especially the human side of it because they get to keep their pets."
The hospice also will find adoptive homes, giving patients peace of mind their pets will be well cared for after they die.
Frank Valente, president of the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast, said the society helped set up the key questions for hospice social workers to ask patients seeking help with their pets.
"We want to keep the pet with the patient as long as possible, but also help plan for the pet after the patient passes," Valente said.
Richardson said Pet Peace of Mind was launched first in Martin County with four other volunteers, who each completed a four-hour training session in both hospice procedures and pet care, helping hospice patients living at home.
Derek Love, a hospice facilities technician, is one of the program's first volunteers.
Love goes to the Joyces' home in Hobe Sound several days a week to take Lucky, their 6-year-old schnoodle -- a mix of a schnauzer and a poodle -- for exercise runs on the golf course in their subdivision.
"(Lucky) gets excited when I show up there because he knows he's going to run," Love said, adding he also spends some time with Joyce and his wife, Delores.
That's been a huge benefit for John Joyce, whose prostate cancer metastasized about a year ago.
"If we didn't have a dog, it would be a pretty boring life," Delores Joyce said. "When John was really sick with the chemo, Lucky wouldn't leave his side."
Paul Ivice writes for Scripps Treasure Coast (Fla.) Newspapers, The Stuart News, Fort Pierce Tribune and Vero Beach Press Journal. Email him at Paul.Ivice(at)scripps.com.
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