Best Friend to the End: Volunteer Dogs Comfort the Living and the Dying
If you’ve ever wondered why dogs are known as man’s best friend, you probably haven’t read Izzy and Lenore: Two Dogs, an Unexpected Journey, and Me, Jon Katz’s account of serving, along with his two dogs, as a novice hospice volunteer, even as the author fought his own battle with depression.
In Izzy and Lenore, Katz tells the story of his simple life on Bedlam Farm in upstate New York. The story revolves around Katz’s love for his growing menagerie of farm animals – particularly his dogs, whose distinct and colorful personalities come alive in Katz’s writing – and the love they returned to him. And yes, it’s a story about loss and grief; but most of all, Izzy and Lenore is a story of the amazing power of animals to comfort and heal.
Being a hospice volunteer is a noble calling, but it’s not for everyone. Many people shy away from even considering taking on such a mission, convinced that frequent contact with illness, death, and grief would be too depressing to bear. That’s what Katz’s friends and family told him when he announced his plan to join the local hospice team and provide comfort and support to terminally ill patients and their families during the final stage of life.
Finding redemption in helping others
What his family didn’t realize was that Katz – a prolific writer who has penned a book a year since 1990 while serving as a regular contributor to publications like Slashdot, Wired and Rolling Stone – was already sinking into a crippling depression. In fact, one of the reasons Katz wanted to volunteer with hospice was his hope that reaching out to help others would help to lift him from sadness and self-absorption.
The depression settled in after Katz was diagnosed with diabetes, during a particularly long and harsh winter on the farm. A social worker Katz met at one of his book readings had talked to him about the need for hospice volunteers and suggested that it might be possible to bring his dogs into service as well. “I was drawn to hospice work because I wanted to do something with my dogs that was more meaningful than some of the traditional dog-human activities, like sheepherding or even conventional therapy work,” Katz says.
When Katz expressed his desire to have his border collie, Izzy, join him in service as a hospice volunteer, hospice officials met his request with enthusiasm tempered by a dash of caution. Both Katz and Izzy took part in rigorous training exercises to make sure they had the temperament to succeed as hospice volunteers.
Unconditional love and devotion
One of the most moving themes in Izzy and Lenore is Izzy’s remarkable ability to sense a patient’s mood and needs and respond accordingly. When a patient died, for example, Izzy instinctively transferred her attention from the deceased to the grieving family. In time, Katz’s affectionate Labrador, Lenore, also joined the hospice volunteer team, and the two dogs brought love and comfort to every hospice patient and family they visited.
Whether Katz recovered from his depression because of his hospice work or because of the unconditional love he received from his animals, one thing is clear throughout the story: everyone loves Izzy and Lenore.