Animal therapy volunteers bring joy to hospice patients

By Evan Pajer - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Thu., Feb. 14, 2013
Nancy Madar and her corgi, Archie, visit hospice patients as part of an animal therapy program. Photos by Evan Pajer.
Nancy Madar and her corgi, Archie, visit hospice patients as part of an animal therapy program. Photos by Evan Pajer.

Nancy Madar's dog, a purebred Welsh Pembroke corgi named Archie, sat on a chair in a conference room at the headquarters for Masonicare Health and Hospice, his blue and red Bolton Veterinary Hospital vest on his back. While an outside observer might think Archie is settling down for a nap, he is actually quite attentive - leaning up against John Roush, volunteer coordinator for Masonicare, and looking at Madar for approval. "He knows that when the vest is on, he's working," Madar said. Madar and her dog are part of Masonicare's "Creature Comfort" program, which uses dogs like Archie to visit hospice patients.

Madar said that although she trained Archie to be a therapy dog, she did not originally intend for him to be one. "I had always wanted a corgi, and I got one. I had no thoughts when I got him about doing therapy dog work," she said. Then, Madar's mother became ill and was placed in a hospice. Madar said that when she visited her mother, she would bring Archie along. "He brought her a lot of joy when he visited her," she said.

Madar said the nursing home soon asked her to bring the dog in to visit with other patients. Since then, Madar trained Archie to be a therapy dog at Bolton Veterinary Hospital through an organization known as Allan's Angels, which Madar said has 60 therapy dog handlers and provides them to organizations like Masonicare. Madar said she saw her work as a handler as a way of giving back.

"Volunteering in hospice is a way for me to thank them - they helped me with my mom, and now I'm giving back," she said. For Madar, volunteering is about having a passion. "All my life, I've had a lot of hobbies and interests," she said. "I've always admired people who are passionate about a cause. I love my dog, I have a passion, and I can share it with people in need."

Many of the patients Madar and Archie see have responded well to the therapy. "I had one patient who could barely move on her own," Madar said, "but she managed to do a watercolor painting of Archie." Madar said that every patient responds differently to her dog. "I stay as long as the patient tolerates. Sometimes it's five minutes if they're not reacting, other times I spend 15 minutes each with multiple patients." In come cases, Madar said, she can spend up to an hour with the patient.

"I can only do an hour at a time and three hours a week," she said. "Archie works very hard. I don't do the work - he does it all." Madar said she typically sees six patients a week, with most of them in Glastonbury, South Windsor, Manchester and East Hartford at both nursing homes and their own homes. "We've gone as far out as Rocky Hill and Ellington to see patients," she said.

Roush said that Madar's work is especially important because many of the patients at the hospices run by Masonicare do not have families to visit them. "Masonicare has a lot of patients with no families," he said. "That's why we provide volunteers." Roush said that Masonicare has 100 volunteers who do everything from music therapy, to bereavement counseling, to vigils for the dying. Of those 100 volunteers, six are animal therapy handlers, Roush said.

Madar said that when her patients do have families, they respond well. "Sometimes the family is there, and they're very receptive. Usually the patients tell their families about Archie," Madar said. Madar said that many of the patients respond to her dog even when they might not respond otherwise. She gave the example of a boy she sees through the Pediatric Palliative Program (Pedipal) who reacted to her dog even though he was dying.

Madar said she also volunteers with her dog at libraries, teaching children reading. "We've been doing that for about a year," she said. "We go to Ellington Library and the kids there read to the dog. Sometimes it's about having them read to the dog, and other times it's about having a dog there the children can relate to."

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