The Animal Hospice, End of Life and Palliative Care Project (AHELP) is an organization whose members include pet parents, veterinarians, and animal service providers, all interested in expanding perceptions and promoting quality comfort care at end-of-life for their animal companions. Based in Greater Seattle including King and Snohomish Counties, the AHELP Project of like-minded animal lovers promotes awareness and sponsors educational events, networking, and social opportunities. Through their education and community support, AHELP empowers its members to maximize the quality of life for their animal companions and create a dignified and memorable end-of-life journey.
Four co-founders began AHELP in February 2009: Michelle Nichols, MS (Bellevue, PartnerstotheBridge.com), Carol Soukup, RN (Kirkland, PartnerstotheBridge.com), Diane Dyer (Seattle, FarewellsbyDiane.com), and Tina Ellenbogen, DVM (Bothell, DrTinaVet.com). In the spring of 2008, Director Michelle Nichols launched her business, Partners to the Bridge, which is involved with animal hospice and end-of-life consulting and counseling. Nichols soon realized that few animal lovers knew about the availability of animal hospice and how to provide comprehensive end-of-life caregiving. Shortly after AHELP was formed, three others joined: Anna Neumann (Lynnwood, CreaturesYoungandOld.com), hospice author Lola Ball, MS (Redmond) and David Haarseger (Everett, HeartfeltStore.com).
AHELP’s membership is comprised of a diverse group of veterinary and animal service providers whose professional network members include massage therapists, special needs pet sitters, swim therapists, Reiki practitioners, other alternative healers, groomers, trainers, retailers, and creators of pet memorials or art that celebrates our beloved animals’ lives. Many members have businesses that support the caregivers, like counselors or therapists. Like-minded pet parents are invited to join them, and all of their work is volunteer-based and united toward this common goal of increasing awareness of end-of life care for animal companions.
Michelle Nichols is AHELP’s Founder and Director. The AHELP Project and Partners to the Bridge represent a mid-life reinvention for Michelle after a 10-year career in healthcare and grief counseling. Inspired by the peaceful transition at home of her special needs Boxer, Brodie, Michelle sought resources that might have helped her family and ways to share with the animal-loving world the peace she felt after Brodie’s death. Later, she learned more lessons from the journey she shared with her dog Sora, who transitioned in January 2011 after a 9-month battle with cancer. Through Partners To The Bridge, Michelle and her mother, Carol, began to apply the human hospice and palliative care principles to animals by providing families with case management and 24/7 end-of-life support. Michelle recognized the importance of community education and met others who shared her passion for quality in end-of-life care. The AHELP Project was formed to promote educated decision-making and foster the empowerment that comes as a result.
Carol Soukup, RN, is AHELP’s Events Chairperson. Carol has been a Registered Nurse for 34 years. After working as a hospice nurse, she developed a passion for palliative care principles that are dedicated to relieving the symptoms in patient and family that can occur as end of life approaches for the loved one. In her work with the families who have sought animal hospice, she found that with knowledge and a plan, the concerns of the family were greatly reduced. With pain management in place, pet owners could freely choose a peaceful, in-home transition with or without the assistance of euthanasia. This family effort also gives them more quality time with their precious loved one. Carol wants to share this experience with the animal caregiver community.
“Many of us have personal experiences that have brought us to this work,” Nichols explained. “Our goal is to increase awareness to the options available, with hopes to make each end-of-life journey as free of regrets as they look back on the last memories shared with their animals. Some of us feel that to offer end-of-life support like hospice is a precious gift we can give back in return for the unconditional love they gave us,” Nichols stated.
“AHELP is neither for, nor against humane euthanasia,” Nichols stated. “Those decisions are for the family, under the guidance of their veterinarian and the care team, to decide. The goal of hospice is to promote quality of life and to support the family as they chart the best course for their loved ones. The goal is not longevity, although that may happen as the focus shifts from cure to comfort for all involved,” Nichols explained.
Many do not see death as a life transition that can be sacred and special. AHELP recognizes this can be a time for personal growth. “We understand that for an animal to be surrounded by those they love, relaxed and in the comfort of his/her own home, can make their transition meaningful and can result in personal growth for all members of the family,” Nichols stated. “Just as birth is a rite of passage, death is as well, and can be a sacred and very special culmination of a life well-lived.”
For pet owners who are struggling over the right choices for them and for their pet, Partners to the Bridge offers important guidance. “Partners can companion the family, or walk with them through their journey, when families need support and guidance through that process,” Nichols explained. “Just like you would nurture and help a puppy, ill and senior animals have that same kind of vulnerability. They might need to be protected from their own pack. For these animals, it is vitally important for owners to be tuned in to their pets’ changing needs. “For instance, your dog may have enjoyed having his/her bed in the middle of the room where the children played nearby, but that might not be the best place for them anymore. In a multi-dog household, consider that they might need to be protected from their own pack,” Nichols stated.
“We’ve seen declining health in many animal friends and can suggest ways for a gentle decline; through natural supplements and pain management therapies, or using a mobility harness or a wheelchair. Pet parents might adjust a litter box or encourage eating through hand feeding. Sometimes, it might be as simple as adjusting the height of a water bowl, or moistening kibble,” Nichols explained.
“Partners to the Bridge can help families construct a plan, remaining sensitive to problems, then brainstorming and adjusting, in order to create solutions. Ask yourself: What do I want the journey to look like? What don’t I want it to look like? Strive to be tuned in. If euthanasia is in your plan, don’t rely upon the old wisdom that ‘you will know when it’s time’ or ‘they will tell you.’ Emotional upheaval is expected in this process and can upset the clear mind needed for weighty decisions like these. Compassionate listening, frequent quality of life assessments, and reminders of predetermined goals allow caregivers to follow their intuition. This results in empowerment and creates a powerful ability to follow their plan.”
One online resource for families whose animals are nearing the end of their lives is the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) website. Michelle is a charter member who also serves on their education committee. She recently spoke at the first IAAHPC conference on “Building a Hospice and Palliative Care Team” and presented AHELP as an organization that could be adopted in any community in the US or abroad. AHELP co-founder Dr. Tina Ellenbogen (Bothell) is also an IAAHPC founder and on the IAAHPC Board.
Nichols explained why AHELP is so important for pet parents. “Palliative care is a very compassionate and sensitive option. Some pet owners can’t afford the cure or their animal is old and they don’t want to put them through the treatment. Many families have nurtured their animals their entire life and as a final gift, the effort it takes to provide this kind of palliative care can provide a dignified and pain-free ending. We want to help make the last moments meaningful and memorable for them and allow their caregivers to move on in their healing process.”
To learn more about AHELP and their upcoming events, visit their website.