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Taking Care of Seniors - Pets and People

Meet Delana Taylor McNac DVM D.Min and her work with Human Hospice and Dogville

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Hospice care is for those nearing the end of life. It is available for humans and for pets, but not usually at the same place. Until recently, pets were not allowed in hospice centers for humans. Even those pets and people who had been together for years. The difficulties of the hospice situation were often compounded by the sadness and confusion faced by the patient and family when separated from a beloved pet. Now, thanks to veterinarian and chaplain Delana Taylor McNac DVM, D.Min and her work with hospices around the country, the importance and necessity of pets -- especially in the hospice situation -- is being recognized.

Dr. Taylor McNac also believes that senior dogs need a special place of care and social interaction, and in December of 2012 she founded Dogville, a day care and boarding facility for senior and special needs dogs.

In this interview, meet Dr. Taylor McNac and learn about her work with hospice care and senior dogs.

Please tell us a little about yourself: vet school, special additional training / certification, and special interests.

Dr. Taylor McNac: I am a 1985 graduate of the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine. I practiced for several years in Virginia in a mixed animal practice, then eventually found my way to Virginia Tech where I completed a pathology residency and became a Board Certified Veterinary Pathologist.

I did surgical pathology for several years in Dallas, Texas then decided to pursue a counseling degree at Dallas Theological Seminary in order to do pet loss grief counseling. I took a right turn into chaplaincy when I had the opportunity to work with policemen, firemen and rescue workers at Ground Zero in New York after 9-11. After graduation from seminary, I did a chaplain residency in Dallas and moved back to Oklahoma, where I pursued a career as a hospice chaplain here in Tulsa.

In 2007, with the support of a local hospice in Tulsa, I created a program called Pet Peace of Mind to help hospice patients keep their pets. The program model was adopted by Banfield Charitable Trust in 2009 and I now manage it nationally -- the program is in 31 states and over 50 hospices nationwide.

What was your inspiration/background for starting the Pet Peace of Mind program?

Dr. Taylor McNac: While I was a chaplain, I encountered an elderly couple with a Dachshund that was an integral part of the husband's life. When the husband's wife began to decline from memory loss, his care also suffered and his family made the decision to move him to a full time care facility-a place that his dog Stretch couldn't go. The resulting pet loss grief was emotionally and spiritually crippling for the husband and he ultimately declined and died soon after. During my last visit to him, he was incoherent and petting an invisible dog beside him... just like he used to do with Stretch when we had visited many times before.

I knew I had to do something to keep this from happening to others and Pet Peace of Mind was born. (If you want to hear me telling the story with a little more detail, please see this video.)

What was your inspiration for starting Dogville, a day care and boarding facility for senior and special needs dogs?

Dr. Taylor McNac: Dogville inspiration -- well, that was my dog Hobo, a blue heeler that lived to be 17 years old. He was truly the first dog I ever owned that reached genuine "old age." I had lost dogs to cancer, trauma and other things early on in their lives, but Hobo had been my only dog for about 12 of those 17 years.

As a veterinarian, I recognized the gradual hearing loss and the vision changes as cataracts formed in his eyes, but I was totally unprepared for the personality changes, the loss of interest, change in appetite, pain referral symptoms, the confusion, the anxiety and all the other things that can happen with a senior dog.

I was also in denial; Hobo had been with me so long and was such an intelligent and faithful dog, I couldn't come to terms with the other changes. I continued to treat Hobo as if he were still the same dog and was disappointed when he forgot where we lived, had accidents in the house and seemed uninterested in the things we used to do together. I wanted him to be the same dog he always had been and didn't want to face the fact that he was changing as he aged and he needed me to change, too.

It wasn't until my work with hospice that I recognized that the signs of aging in people and the signs of aging in dogs have some similarities. When I saw and heard the grief in the faces and words of the people whose parents were aging, whose loved one had Alzheimer's Dementia or whose daughter or son had a massive stroke that I came to a new understanding about aging. I began to understand senior dogs very differently and I wanted to do something to educate others about how to support their senior dog. The idea for Dogville came from that time.

What are some of the challenges faced with for: A) hospice patients and B) seniors and special needs dogs?

Dr. Taylor McNac responds:

A. The biggest challenge with Pet Peace of Mind is with the hospices themselves. Our national goal at Banfield Charitable Trust with this program is to change the way hospices see pets in the home -- to help them understand that there are patients out there whose pets are a source of emotional and spiritual support to them during the end of life journey.

Part of hospice philosophy involves providing support to the patient's family and we believe that pets are family to many hospice patients. Those who work directly with hospice patients often recognize this, but not all hospice administrators realize how significant pets are to patients. I see it as a teaching opportunity and we have had great success with providing workshops at state hospice meeting and by participating in teleconferences and webinars for continuing education credit in nursing and social work venues.

B. In the same way, I believe that education is the biggest challenge for those with senior dogs. For some, it's easy to ignore or forget about a dog that isn't demanding attention anymore and isn't wreaking havoc on your life and your possessions like a young dog. The truth is, senior dogs need us to be proactive about them; to pay attention to their need for socialization and interaction, to make sure they get regular checkups from their veterinarian and to make sure someone that understands the needs of senior dogs cares for them when we are away.

Unfortunately, senior dog owners who are educated about these things are often fearful about leaving their dogs in the care of someone else, and sometimes rightly so. In the same way that we fear abuse and neglect of elderly people, we fear that someone will lose patience with a dog that is incontinent, irritable or anxious, so we choose to stay home. I hope to provide a place that provides something in between hospitalization and neglect; a place where senior dogs have the freedom to interact with people or other senior dogs, to lay in the sun and to get the special support and care they deserve.

What do you find are the greatest rewards of working in both programs?

Dr. Taylor McNac: The most rewarding aspect of working with hospice patients and pets comes from the stories our hospices share with us on our blog. Patients are so relieved to find out that the hospice understands how important their pet is to them and when pet food is delivered, the pet is taken to the groomer or veterinarian at no charge, they are given back a sense of dignity about the care they can provide to their pet.

My favorite stories are about patients meeting the family that will provide a new forever home for their pet and the poignant scenes of pets coming back to say goodbye to their beloved owner. It's too early to tell with Dogville (we've only been officially open since Dec. 17, 2012) what the long term rewards will be, but the response from the community in Tulsa has been very positive.

Anything that you would like to add for people interested in locating (or starting) similar programs for pets and people where they live?

Dr. Taylor McNac: Pet Peace of Mind is available to any non-profit hospice interested in starting a local program. Banfield Charitable Trust provides a $5000 grant and all the program materials to run the program through their existing volunteer department. I do the online training for hospice program coordinators and ongoing support for each hospice. We have programs in 31 states now!

If someone is interested in approaching their local non-profit hospice about starting a program, they can contact me for a brochure and some additional information at: Delana.taylor-mcnac@banfieldcharitabletrust.org

Thank you, Dr. Taylor McNac, for sharing these wonderful stories of outreach and inspiration. Best wishes in your continued work with senior pets and hospice care.

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