Higham: Hospice supporter helps people with animals

Volunteers play a crucial role in the running of hospices. Today, LAURA BEARDSELL-MOORE talks to one woman who has been helping St Nicholas Hospice Care

BELINDA Johnston, of Higham, has been supporting St Nicholas Hospice Care for over a year with the help of her volunteers.

The Our Special Friends service is linked to the Hospice Neighbours Service, a scheme in which volunteers help someone living with a life-shortening illness in their own community.

But Belinda’s volunteers offer a slightly different form of companionship – she uses animals to help people who are ill or isolated.

“I am a vet but what I do now is non-clinical. I’m interested in emotional support and human wellbeing. Animals can play a big part in that.

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“I became a specialist provider for the Hospice Neighbours service because people at the end of life had anxiety about their animals and some could no longer keep animals themselves.”

Explaining how the service operates, Belinda says: “We do several things: We help to keep people and their pets together and try to find local volunteers to help. We help to re-home pets who outlive their owners; and we also bring animals to people’s homes if they can no longer look after a pet because of illness.”

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Belinda understands the importance of animals in helping people emotionally, particularly as part of the bereavement process.

“My mum died when I was just ten. That had a big impact on my life. I knew by the age of 11 that I wanted to become a vet because I wanted to heal.

“Then my dad died when I was 24. I was in my penultimate year at university studying to become a vet. Having animals around was a really important part of how I dealt with bereavement during that time.

“Some time ago I gave up being a clinical vet to work out what was important to me and I took up a course in counselling skills. I put that together with my vet skills and Our Special Friends developed from there.”

She added: “I became involved with St Nicholas Hospice Care after I attended some training that they were putting on. It was there that I heard about the Hospice Neighbours service.

“The hospice works to celebrate life and looks at making the most of the time we have, along with planning and care. Hospice Neighbours support this by offering companionship in people’s homes. That’s exactly what I’m doing but with pets so I volunteered straight away to add to the service. I’m really glad we can work together.”

People who have life-shortening illnesses can find it difficult to retain pets as mobility becomes difficult or they begin to worry about what will happen to their pets when they are gone. But animals can have a positive impact on happiness and wellbeing and Belinda believes that her ‘special friends’ offer unique benefits to people.

“One example of how we are working is with a 76-year-old lady who has lung cancer. We assessed her needs and asked what was important to her. She wanted to keep her dog for as long as possible but she was finding it difficult to get around which made looking after the dog difficult. We found someone in the community who could walk her dog in the mornings. This meant that the lady could then take the rest she needed and get up later and the dog could stay there as her companion.”

At this point Belinda introduces one of her very special volunteers, Rolo, a long-haired Jack Russell.

“I take Rolo to visit people. He’s a bit cheeky but he’s very good. He’s very quiet but also very enthusiastic when he greets people. People love him; he’s a real character.”

Rolo seems to love being the centre of attention, but he’s calm and friendly. Belinda is interested in the therapeutic ways that animals can help to improve people’s lives.

“Rolo is wonderful with people who are ill and he’s particularly good with people who have dementia. I try to encourage people to stroke and groom the animals. This increases oxytocin and endorphins, which can make them happier. It’s soothing and calms people down, relieving anxiety.”

She adds cautiously: “Having animals around isn’t for everybody, but having some sort of companionship is a really important part of living with illness.”

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