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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Final Visits: The Next Step

Over the last 10 weeks I have been in intensive training for the next area of therapy Gopher will be venturing into. He obviously needs no further training, but per the entity I signed up with I needed 24 hours of training over 8 weeks. Why all this training you might be asking yourself? No, I am not preparing nor exposing Gopher to a potentially harmful or dangerous setting. I am preparing myself and him for visiting in a person’s home, nursing facility, or assisted living environment. This might not sound too different from traditional visits, if there is such a thing as traditional visiting, but the key difference is that there is not plan to ‘fix’ or ‘treat’ their illness or infliction, only to provide them comfort in the form of pain management or with company of volunteers with or without dogs, thus is the magic of hospice. 

Gopher and I over the coming months will begin visiting first a single patient, then adding on as I see how he handles the new therapy that he will be delivering. There will be the inevitable end point, some patients we will get to know quite well while others we may only see once or twice. Death and dying is such an odd and often taboo subject in our society, so it will be very interesting for me to see the different cultures and persons and how they handle their own mortality.

My biggest concern is how Gopher will handle this type of therapy. He is very adept at his job as it is now, often whimpering and crying as we approach one of the facilities we visit. In an earlier entry, Trust the Dog, I noted that he may be among those animals whose acute sense of smell or other device allowed him to be among those animals that have been noted to sense death is coming. How will he react if/when this is a constant state of being? Will he stay by and comfort as he seemed to do with the child, or will he tuck tail and leave the room as other well trained therapy dogs have been known to do when attempting to do hospice work? Only time will tell and I am looking forward to the new adventure, and seeing how Gopher performs, and the joy he may bring to not only the person dying, but their family and friends who are preparing to lose a loved one as well.

Personally as the handler in all of this I have no fear or nervousness about how I am going to handle the situations. Growing up in a small town where the primary income of the family business was based in funerals has not made me callous towards death, but has made me realistic, understand death as best as anyone living can, and not fearful of dying. I am also excited to become part of such a wonderful program. I have lost three grandparents in my adult life, 2 were in nursing/24 hour care facilities, and one was at home under hospice care. Due to those experiences I was turned off by the thought of 24 hours of training at first, but decided to give it a shot, and am wholly impressed and in awe of the program established here. They seem to truly get what hospice is, and treat it with respect, dignity and joy in their work of providing comfort to those who are dying. They do not shy away from death, or show any hesitancy but embrace the concept in providing one with as much dignity and independence as is possible when dying. They even hold an annual remembrance ceremony for families, volunteers and staff, not a memorial, but truly a celebration of life which I had the privilege of attending. I just hope I am able to live up to the dignity and example they have set for me.

In the meantime Gopher has had an eventful few months. While I was in training he visited with Mom, and although he did well she stated more than once that she could tell he didn’t feel right about not working with Dad. We did get to work together on one Sunday and have since continued our regular visits. This last week he was able to say goodbye to several children who after months of treatment were able to go home. He even had his Uncle Greg and Aunt Annie joined him on a visit, although not his favorite place where he can truly show off his skills. He liked having them there and hope one day perhaps one of his coming poodle cousins might join him at work. 

In addition to beginning Hospice in the coming weeks, we will be actively starting to R.E.A.D. in 2012, and pending examination on 12/6 his little brother Squirrel might start working with him on occasion. It has been and is continuing to truly be a great adventure, our Gopher seems to know his purpose and executes himself well, in the last over a year in the over 50 hours of visits and seemingly countless patients we have seen tears, laughter, joy, intimate moments, and have been welcomed into so many people lives at their most vulnerable. They all say thank you and show so much appreciation, hopefully through our actions they know that it is Gopher and I who are truly appreciative of being there. 

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